Secularity in Azerbaijan Has Many Advantages

As morning prayers reach their climax at a synagogue in the heart of Muslim Azerbaijan, an elderly man in a skull cap forcefully raises the Jewish holy scroll, the Torah, above the heads of his fellow worshippers. The synagogue itself is airy and modern, expensively constructed less than a decade ago with the full approval of the authorities. There’s even a photograph in the entrance hall showing Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, shaking hands with the head of the Ashkenazi Jewish community, Gennady Zelmanovich.

“We live together like a family, and we are regarded as equals,” Zelmanovich says, smiling when I ask him how Muslim Azeris treat the tiny Jewish minority here. “There has never been any anti-Semitism in this country.”

Although I’ve occasionally heard anti-Semitic remarks from taxi drivers in the capital, Baku, there are almost no reports of persecution or violence against Jews. Unlike neighboring Iran, Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim state with an official policy of religious tolerance and a laid-back attitude to Islamic customs shaped by decades of atheist Soviet rule. This means there are more stiletto heels than headscarves on the streets of downtown Baku. The government has also been developing an increasingly lucrative trading partnership with Israel.

Radical Islam is seen as a potential threat to stability and prosperity in this energy-rich country, and it’s dealt with harshly. After uncovering alleged plots to attack the U.S. and Israeli embassies, the authorities introduced new legislation last year to increase their control over religious groups. Several mosques were shut down, and a couple of them were even demolished, while police are reported to have detained suspected radicals and shaven their beards off.

But the vast majority of the country’s Muslims are resolutely moderate, and free-speech campaigner Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a liberal imam who was evicted from his own mosque several years ago, claims that the authorities have been exaggerating the extremist threat to give themselves more powers. “In terms of human rights, this new law has been a disaster,” he insists.

Back at the synagogue, the Jews of Baku continue to worship in peace, knowing that Islamist literature is being seized and banned, and suspected militants are being monitored and arrested. “We don’t worry about radicals,” Zelmanovich says with confidence, “because the authorities have the situation under control.”

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.

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