Westward bound

A secular Muslim country, Azerbaijan looks to Israel as a bridge to Pax Americana.

mosque train station 88  (photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger)
mosque train station 88
(photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger)
Azerbaijan is not a place where you get woken up by the call of the muezzin. In fact, you're much more likely to hear hip-hop blaring from a car stereo than catch a mullah reciting the Koran from a minaret in this secular Muslim country sandwiched between Russia and Iran. For the eight-million-strong Caspian seaside state with oil reserves it's looking to sell to the West, openness could be part of the marketing campaign. It's been that way for as long as Yosef Shagal can remember. Shagal left the Azeri capital, Baku, when he was 42 to make aliya in 1990. After being sworn in as a freshman Yisrael Beiteinu MK last month, he returned to his birthplace last week to press for closer Azeri-Israeli ties. Both countries see some potential benefits. For starters, Azerbaijan is looking at tapping into Israel's close relationship with America and its Jewish community to help change US legislation banning aid to the central Asian country. And Israel is looking at tapping into Azerbaijan's new one-million-barrel-a-day pipeline bringing oil to Turkey and the Mediterranean. But Israel is also eyeing the secular Shia nation as a potential exporter of a moderate Islam which can exist in peace and cooperation with the Jewish state. As Shagal puts it, "It's a great model of tolerance." But it's a model that might not lend to imitation in the Islamic world. In the search for what makes Azerbaijan unique, one comes across a somewhat syllogistic reason: its history, resources and geography - which are themselves singular. Azerbaijan sprang from a peculiar Asian position that gave it a European vista; was endowed with energy resources that put it in the view of the West; and then perversely benefited from Western oversight - Russia's - that stamped out many Eastern inclinations, such as religious entrenchment. Yet those very particular realities make Azerbaijan a place with limited rather than infinite horizons, since whether it looks East or West (or North or South), Russia and Iran are there. In its struggle to live in both worlds, it has welcomed an Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan but has no embassy of its own in Israel. To be sure, Jews there enjoy a level of comfort rare in both the Muslim and former Soviet worlds. Currently, about 20,000 live in Azerbaijan, the majority in Baku and up to 5,000 in Quba, located 880 km. away in the mountains. (Some 60-80,000 have immigrated to Israel.) THE JEWS of Quba are mountain Jews, while Baku has tended to be a center for Ashkenazim. The former trace their ancestry back to the destruction of the First Temple and have lived in Azerbaijan for centuries. Quba itself was set up in the mid-1700s by the leader Fatali Khan as a place of Jewish refuge, and the river bank he assigned them has remained a Jewish enclave ever since, picking up the name "Little Jerusalem." Ashkenazi Jews came more recently. Many migrated east to find a more tolerant home than that provided in the Pale of Settlement under the Russian Empire and later throughout the Soviet Union. Many more came from that region during World War II to escape the Nazi advance. Several of those former Soviet regions, such as Ukraine and Russia itself, are now experiencing increasing attacks on Jews. The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, the group that brought Shagal to Baku, recently issued a report documenting anti-Semitism from Bulgaria to New Zealand. Azerbaijan wasn't included, because there were no anti-Jewish incidents on record. That tolerance isn't just borne out by statistics, it's borne in the air, according to Jews who live there. Rabbi Meir Bruk, a Chabad emissary stationed in Baku, illustrates this point by noting that whenever his Muslim neighbors see him walking on Shabbat, they offer him a ride, unaware of the religious dictate against driving on the Sabbath. "Someone has to help me," he explains. "This is tolerance." And the tolerance, according to Bruk, goes both ways. Many of the 260 students at the Chabad day school come from mixed families, since one need have only a Jewish mother to be eligible to study there. "We have students who fast on Yom Kippur and on Ramadan. We don't have a problem with that," he says. The school corridors are filled with posters of Israel and displays about Jewish holidays. But there's also one wall dedicated to Albert Agaronov, a national hero and a Jew killed in 1992 in Azerbaijan's war with Armenia. The display is there so the students "know that they are also a part of this country," explains teacher Haya Lewis. INDEED, the Jewish community takes its nationality seriously. At a recent event to mark Israel's Independence Day, the crowd burst into cheers when one of the participants, Member of Parliament Yevda Abramov, addressed them in native Azeri rather than Russian as the other speakers had. Abramov became Azerbaijan's first Jewish parliamentarian this November. As such, he says, "I've never seen any anti-Semitic attitude." As Abramov speaks, he tucks into his lunch at an Italian restaurant where Jewish dietary laws are most definitely not observed. Like the Muslims, Azeri Jews tend to exhibit secular tendencies. The evening before, Abramov, Shagal and the rest of the Israeli delegation were hosted by an Azeri high official at a meal featuring bacon and red wine - both of which are proscribed under Islam. Headscarves are no more common in Baku than in any European city; women wear short skirts and high heels as they stroll along tree-lined boulevards and neatly carved parks. Among the onyx statues paying homage to national poets and military heroes throughout the city is one dedicated to a woman throwing off her veil. Set atop a tall column in a central circle, it can be seen far and wide. Harder to spot are mosques, which are easily outnumbered by high rises. Foreign dignitaries stopping to place the obligatory wreath on the massive grave of Heidar Aliev, father of independent Azerbaijan, would be hard-pressed to spot a Koranic inscription or even a carved crescent. Though Azerbaijan has been almost entirely Muslim since the Arab conquest in the seventh and eighth centuries, the population has long had a history of moderation. Rovshan Geydarov, head of the Israel-Azerbaijan Friendship Association, attributes that trait to the origins of their faith. "They remember until today that their roots weren't in Islam but something else," he says. "They know they became Muslims under force." According to Brenda Shaffer, a Haifa University lecturer on the Caucuses, "Azeris still call themselves 'Muslims under the sword,' meaning Muslims under distress." But it also has something to do with geography and resources. Four times the size of Israel and abutted by Russia, Georgia, Iran and arch-enemy Armenia, Azerbaijan was part of the Russian Empire from 1806-1917 and the Soviet Union from 1920-1991. It has long been a cultural and trading crossroads boasting a diverse population with a Western inclination. The national book of Azerbaijan, published in 1937 but set pre-World War I, puts an emphasis on multiculturalism and location from its first line: "We were a very mixed lot, we 40 schoolboys who were having a geography lesson one hot afternoon..." In the second paragraph of Ali and Nino, their teacher tells them, "It is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia." The country seems to still be in the process of making that choice. MUCH OF the foundation for joining Europe came from the Russian imperialists, but the way was also paved by foreigners from further west who came digging for black gold. Among the notables to get in on the action after Russia opened up oil concessions for international ownership: the Nobel and Rothchild families. They came toting Continental architects and street planners. Around the old city with its winding lanes, low stone structures and arched entries sprouted a panoply of broad-shouldered buildings dressed with pastel paint and right-angled moldings. Ali and Nino describes a world where "Muhammadans" drink wine and waltz with unveiled non-Muslims. To that was added all manner of Western recreation. Azerbaijan became the first Muslim country to boast European diversions, such as opera, thanks to these bored aristocrats. In the case of opera, it began when a diva lured by oil money visited Baku. She was horrified at being unable to find a proper place to sing, so a robber baron had a theater built in just 10 months. The latter also brought ballet, casinos and, later, jazz. Jews, meanwhile, were able to work without many of the restrictions they typically faced and soon rose to the top of professions such as medicine and academics. And then the Soviets came. For the next 70 years, they suppressed religion. It came in two major forms: heavy-handed oppression and progressive policies. Two prominent buildings along the central Independence Avenue illustrate the dual approaches. One, a charitable house, had its Koranic inscriptions erased by the Soviets and replaced with the five-pointed USSR star. Next door stands a building which originally housed a school dedicated to the instruction of Muslim girls, later becoming the Manuscript Institute. "The greatest tool against Islam is education," says Fuad Akhundov, an Azeri documentarian, translator and self-described "amateur historian." The Soviet authorities also took public stances against Islamic traditions that they didn't approve of. In one case in 1926, a woman who took off her veil was murdered by her father and brother. The Russians put both of them on trial, but the crucial issue wasn't so much to punish them as to raise awareness about what had happened. In the end, thousands of Azeri women were marching in the street, taking off their veils. Though inspired by Russian action, it was an Azeri artist who created a sculpture of a woman removing her veil which stands in downtown Baku to this day. "The Islamic traditions were severely undermined by the Soviets," says Akhundov, himself a secular Muslim. He particularly stresses the role that education for the whole society has played in preventing a resurgence of Islam post-USSR. "The level of education is pretty high. The Islamic clergy cannot really offer them anything," he continues. "The mullahs no longer play a significant role in the society, so they don't have any base." He concludes, "Ethnic groups under the Soviet Union have a lot to be thankful for... They could only make their breakthrough and emancipation under the Russians." It's hardly a model that other Islamic countries can follow, as Israel's ambassador to Azerbaijan, Arthur Lenk, acknowledges. But he points out that Soviet rule is long gone: "That ended 15 years ago. The president of Azerbaijan today likes that model of [tolerance] and is encouraging that model in Azerbaijan. There are other choices he could have made. That's a choice that lots of us in the West and Israel believe in." SINCE THE fall of the Iron Curtain, there has been some religious revival, as is true throughout the Former Soviet Union. Now that religion is allowed, there is greater exposure and therefore interest in it, according to Shaffer, who also has an appointment at Harvard. She also noted that the Azeri economic situation that followed the Soviet break-up was a traumatic one. "If people are in economic difficulty, religion is very comforting, and after the Soviet Union there was a testing of new ideologies," she says, adding that, "there is some more interest in religion, but I don't think there are any political implications." Out of the chaos, Heidar Aliev emerged as a sure if autocratic and corrupt leader who brought stability to the country. A former Communist apparatchik, he decided to orient Azerbaijan toward the West to ensure minority religious rights and to keep the country secular. Shaffer describes the last tenet as coming in part from Aliev's own upbringing. The Azeri elite has remained well-educated and non-religious. "It's a big part of their ideology, and they're very proud of their secularism," she says, and likened the situation to that in Turkey, which also has maintained a strict secularism. Azeris are Turkic by ethnicity and share many common denominators with their larger neighbor, despite being Shia rather than Sunni. Azeri has replaced Russian as the official language, and new mosques, churches and synagogues have opened since the independent government has allowed religious freedom. Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazadeh, the head of Azerbaijan's spiritual leadership and of the Office of Caucasian Muslims, representing Muslims throughout the region, even made a symbolic contribution to the building of a new Ashkenazi synagogue in 2003. "It's our obligation and position to be together," the sheikh explains. He receives the Israeli delegation in his modest palace, green-themed in a nod to Islam, but decorated with upholstered couches and inlaid wood tables. Notwithstanding the relative openness to minority faiths, it could be argued that religious freedom is most hampered by the state's insistence on keeping the country secular. "They can no longer prohibit professing a religion, but they try to keep the mosque out of the government," Akhundov says. In part, notes Shaffer, that stems from the leadership's interest in fostering ties with the West, where religious pluralism is the norm. (Following Heidar Aliev's death in 2003, his son Ilham has taken the same line.) Shaffer explains that the choice to go West is connected to Azerbaijan's desire to ally itself with the world's largest economic powerhouse, the United States. "The United States is the Rome of the day," she says. "The Pax Americana - that's what most states are going to tie themselves to regardless of their ideology." But she says the choice is also related to Azerbaijan's aspirations for independence, that it not be swallowed up by the neighboring political powerhouses of Russia, Iran or Turkey. Had Azerbaijan decided to join OPEC, she says, "It would have been just another drop in the bucket." Going alone, according to Shaffer, "really helps to balance out the power of the monopoly." And boosting world oil production - currently around 85 million barrels a day - by another million barrels "really has a soothing effect on the market." Lenk sees it as a rare opportunity for a struggling post-Communist country to reverse its fate. "It's almost like they won the lottery. They found all this oil. The lottery ticket is one million barrels that are about to flow through the BTC [Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline]. This is such an exciting time for them. They can change their history. Most counties don't win the lottery. Countries in Asia and Africa can't change their [situation]. The question is what they're going to do with their lottery ticket." SPENDING their winnings, so to speak, could also change - or at least help improve - Israel's future. A strong Azerbaijan allied with Israel would give the latter a firmer toehold in a region within both the Russian and Iranian spheres of influence. And the potential for an oil source independent of both states would help the Israeli economy. It could also strengthen the strategic relationship with Turkey, since there's talk of extending the end of the Azeri pipeline from Turkey through Israel. According to Lenk, such an arrangement would represent "a natural connection [for Israel] as a customer and for national and strategic reasons." Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov says the possibility of an Israeli extension on the pipeline will be decided by experts. "From the political point of view, I don't see any problems." Yet when it comes to ties with Israel there are political difficulties and limitations - arising from the same realities that allow for so much opportunity: namely Azerbaijan's rough neighborhood. The biggest challenge is posed by Iran. Around a third of Iran's population - 20-plus million people - are ethnic Azeris. Azerbaijan is worried about offending the Islamic republic, one of the issues that surfaces along with talk of Azerbaijan opening an embassy in Tel Aviv. But Abramov, the MP, attributes that more to lack of money than political will, noting that Azerbaijan has indicated its intention of having representation in Israel. Shaffer concurs that "Israel wasn't the first one in line" when the newly independent and non-too-prosperous Azerbaijan began establishing diplomatic missions. According to MK Shagal, however, a more important issue has been the threat of losing Arab votes in the UN with such an Israeli presence. Azerbaijan, he explains, depends on the Arab bloc to support it in resolutions concerning its long-standing conflict with Armenia. "Azerbaijan is very afraid that the moment they open an embassy in Israel, Iran, together with the other Muslim countries, will cut them out," he says. "For Azerbaijan that's a catastrophe." And then there's the fear of Iran itself. A small Islamic party has sprung up in Azerbaijan, though it's not allowed to participate in elections (which are heavily weighted toward the ruling party in any case). There have also been softer attempts to win a following, though they don't seem to have made many inroads. An Iranian bookstore stocked with Islamic books and posters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has several sales clerks, but no customers. Next door, at the university book store selling Azeri, Russian and English titles, patrons cue up to pay for their purchases. Despite the lack of success, the fear of fundamentalism lurks. And that, says Shaffer, might be what connects the Israelis and the Azeris the most. In this context, she explains, "they feel shared values with Israel." That, of course, is nothing new to Shagal. He remembers the friendship and "togetherness" of his past life in Azerbaijan. He recalls the unwritten code that no weddings could be held during either Jewish or Muslim holidays lest the other group be excluded from the festivities. "We lived with Muslims like brothers," relates Shagal, a cigarette dangling from under the dark mustache that can be seen on many of his former compatriots. Even he acknowledges the difficulty in using Azerbaijan as model for others. "In all my life, I never saw a place like this," he says.