The occasional importance of symbolism

Azerbaijan, the place where Western and Islamic culture meld successfully, was an important place to hold The Islamic Solidarity Games.

Spectators at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. The country also recently hosted the Islamic Solidarity Games. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Spectators at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. The country also recently hosted the Islamic Solidarity Games.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Lost in the perennial news cycles these past weeks, ones that invariably included terrorist attacks, carnage in Syria and neo-Nazis in America, beating up on the US president and Israel and, of course, the obligatory doomsday predictions, transpired quite a significant and important event – The Islamic Solidarity Games, held in Baku, Azerbaijan.
In foreign affairs, we talk much about symbolism versus action, action always preferable to mere symbolism. However, on occasion, symbolism can be important and even possess the possibility to affect positive change. In this regard, the Islamic Solidarity Games were heavy on symbolism and, given the audience and participants, likely made a great many people contemplate their lives, beliefs and respective places in the world.
It seems odd that these games would go unnoticed in an America so obsessed alternately with Islamophobia or Islamophilia, identifying Muslims as either all good or all bad. We focus on either our Muslim enemies or friends, and watch the battles ensue. However, unbeknown to most of us and largely ignored in the Western press, 56 Muslim-majority countries came together in Azerbaijan to compete not with weapons, but with balls and track shoes.
As for Azerbaijan, we are used to reading and hearing about Azerbaijan’s indispensable role as a strategic ally to the US, Israel and Europe, all the while sandwiched between perpetual foes to all – Iran and Russia.
Azerbaijan maintains its crucial participation in ongoing operations in Afghanistan through thick and thin. Azerbaijani soldiers were the only Muslim soldiers in Iraq on our side. Azerbaijan is a key player to the energy security of Europe.
However, we are not nearly as familiar with Azerbaijan from a religious standpoint. Azerbaijan is a Muslim-majority nation that is constitutionally secular. Jews and Christians live in Azerbaijan in significant numbers. Most Jews in the country will attest to the fact that their lineage began there 1,500 years ago with the Babylonian exile or say that their families arrived in Muslim Azerbaijan fleeing the Tsar’s pogroms. But are they religious? Do women wear hijabs or a burka? How do they treat women, in general? Are Azerbaijanis Sunni or Shi’ite? In hosting the games, Azerbaijan did an interesting thing. It stowed the nearly obligatory Islamist rhetoric and anti-West sentiment and put on games that were about sporting competition from a decidedly secular and Western standpoint, a la the Olympic Games. Were all those who participated happy? Certainly not – but a lesson was taught.
Begun in Saudi Arabia in 2005, the 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games represented 21 sports, including both athletics and para-athletics.
There were the traditional Olympic sports, such as diving and gymnastics, but there were also sports rarely seen outside of Islamic countries, such as Wushu, an unarmed combat sport. Another ancient sport, Zurkhaneh, stems from the training rituals of Persian warriors.
This year, Iran dominated in both Wushu and Zurkhaneh, winning the most gold medals in these sports. Azerbaijan won the most gold in the medals race. However, Azerbaijan’s good friend Turkey won the most medals of all colors.
To anyone involved in Olympic sports, it will come as no surprise that Azerbaijan has vied repeatedly to be selected to host the Olympic Games. In a sense, the 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games represented its audition. The venues, ceremonies and athleticism all said, “See, we can host an Olympic Games and do it in a way that not only competes with but surpasses the splendor of past games.”
Opening remarks were given by President Ilham Aliyev. Vice President and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva gave the welcoming address.
Visually stunning, the opening ceremony featured fountains and fireworks. The symbol of the game was water, representing peace and friendship, and water from many areas of Azerbaijan was poured into a majestic fountain. Fireworks represented not only the celebration of the Islamic Solidarity Games, but also Azerbaijan’s Zoroastrian roots.
During the opening ceremony, a young girl flew a kite in scenes of various adventures, symbolizing peace and hope, while highlighting the contribution of Islamic civilization.
The mascots of the games, Inje and Jasur, were Azerbaijani Karabakh horses. Not only symbolic of Azerbaijan’s ancient tie to horses, the mascots also reflected the current frozen conflict in the Azerbaijan region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been occupied by Armenia for more than two decades.
Images of athletes from different countries embracing one another and of strong and empowered women from countries perceived as sexist and anti-democratic were published by AFP, and Instagram was flooded with vivid, almost enchanting images from the games.
The closing ceremonies highlighted Azerbaijan heritage and Baku, known as the City of Winds.
The Olympic Creed states, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.”
The 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games sought to emphasize unity and solidarity. Given these uncertain times in the West, where countries are becoming estranged from one another and being more silolike than ever before, we can learn from our friends in the east and embrace solidarity.
Azerbaijan, the place where Western and Islamic culture meld successfully, was an important place to hold the games, and served as an example to all of what can be.
They are predominantly Shi’ite, by the way.
The author is director of publishing for Israel365 and the former director of international communications for a leading Israeli think tank. She lives and writes in the Middle East.