Ali Hasanov: Azerbaijan is a genuine secular model of the Islamic world

Ali Hasanov, Head of the Public and Political Affairs Department of the Administration of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, responded to questions from Forum Daily American-Jewish newspaper. In the interview, the top-ranking Baku official highlighted Azerbaijan`s experience and achievements in inter-civilization dialogue, and Azerbaijani-Israeli cooperation. AzerTAc presents the interview.

- Azerbaijan is located in a geopolitically complex region: instability, armed conflicts, strengthening radicalism, aggressive foreign policy of some neighbors, terrorism threat, etc. What are the main challenges for Azerbaijan today, in your opinion?
 - The South Caucasus region is of great geopolitical importance and has great potential for development. Energy, transport and other transnational projects, some of which were initiated by Azerbaijan, have created fertile ground for the prosperity of the whole region. However unresolved territorial conflicts such as the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Georgian-Abkhazian and South Ossetia conflicts, Russian-Ukrainian conflict, set the ground for destabilization of the situation. These conflicts pose immediate threat to the regional security. For example, as a result of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict 20 percent of Azerbaijani lands have been occupied by neighboring Armenia, more than one million Azerbaijanis became refugees and internally displaced persons as a result of the Armenian aggression. I firmly believe that the Jewish people, who experienced a terrible genocide against Jews in Europe, share our pain, the sufferings of innocent people and grief over the genocide act committed by Armenians in the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly in 1992. In this regard, I would like to highlight a recent speech by President of Israel Reuven Rivlin on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the UN General Assembly. In his speech, Mr President mentioned the Khojaly Genocide along with other tragic events of the 20th century. We are very grateful to him for this.
Uncontrolled territories, occupied by separatists and armed bandits, including Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent regions, the so-called "gray zones" are an ideal place for wide spread of international terrorism, drug trafficking, illegal arms trafficking, and other elements. Of course, taking into account the fact that neighboring countries have faced a similar situation too, it is quite difficult to speak about strong regional security and regional stability. Despite the difficult geopolitical situation we have managed to turn Azerbaijan into a strong, prosperous and stably developing country over the years of independence. Against the background of confrontations, the strengthening of radicalism and religious intolerance in the world, the international community can see – in the example of a modern and strong Azerbaijan – a genuine model for many countries.

- In general, do you think it is possible to build a developed society which would combine Islam and a state`s secular fundamentals?
Recently in his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the head of our state said that all of us want to see stable, peaceful development in our countries. Radicalism is the threat to all of us, and geopolitical position of our countries is a natural barrier preventing the penetration by radicals of the European continent. Azerbaijan is an example of a modern and secular Muslim country. This means that in a Muslim country too it is possible to build a modern, secular society, a society, which respects the traditional religions and is based on universal values.
Azerbaijan will host the inaugural European Games in June, 2015. In 2017, our country will host the Islamic Solidarity Games. This is a clear example of a modern Muslim country, which combines global and inter-civilization traditions, values.
- What are the main principles of Azerbaijan's foreign policy?
- Equal cooperation, respect for international law and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries are important principles of the foreign policy of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan cooperates with all countries of the region and the world, including Israel, on the basis of these principles. After restoring its independence Azerbaijan established close political ties with the countries of both the East and West and neighboring states. Our cooperation in transnational oil and gas and transport areas has transformed the energy map of the region and Europe. We have provided comprehensive assistance to the international coalition in the fight against international terrorism. Azerbaijan has participated in peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. There are too many examples of mutually beneficial cooperation between Azerbaijan and other countries.
- Does radical Islam pose a real threat to Azerbaijan?
- Of course, time after time, certain forces have tried to aggravate the internal situation in Azerbaijan too, and undermine political stability in the country. We also observed some attempts to destabilize society using a religious factor. But the Azerbaijani people`s commitment to the traditions of tolerance and the idea of multiculturalism, and the government`s deliberate policy on this front are a real barrier to the spread of religious radicalism in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani people and the leadership of the country will never allow the substitution of a secular state model that we chose with a religious one, and this policy will be continued.
- How would you describe the current relations between Azerbaijan and Israel, and what is your vision of further development of these ties?
- The past years have seen Azerbaijan become a rapidly developing country and strengthen its status of the regional leader as well as a political, economic and humanitarian hub of the South Caucasus. Guided by the norms of international law, Azerbaijan took an active and principled position on decisions shaping the system of international relations in the world when the country was a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Azerbaijan is pursuing a balanced foreign policy aimed at preserving and developing relations with all countries of the world. I am pleased to note that relations between Azerbaijan and Israel, both in bilateral, regional and international formats, are the relations of strategic partnership. I would like to emphasize mutual understanding and friendly ties between the leaders of our countries in the political sphere.
We are actively cooperating in the economic area, with special emphasis put on energy, advanced technology supplies, military, telecommunications, agricultural and other fields. Social, cultural and human relations between our peoples, non-governmental organizations, the media, as well as diaspora organizations also play an important role.
As for the prospects of bilateral and multilateral relations, they can be hailed only as positive. There is a great potential for the development of cooperation in regional and international affairs.
Unfortunately, time after time, some international forces attempt to spoil relations between our countries. But we are confident that such attempts will produce no result. We also hope that biased anti-Azerbaijani articles, which have recently been published by several Israeli newspapers, are taken for serious neither by Israeli official circles nor society.
- Can Azerbaijan become a bridge between the State of Israel and the Muslim world?
- Pursuing the policy of a secular, modernized, multicultural society demonstrates President Ilham Aliyev`s commitment to turn the country into one of the world's humanitarian centers. We have ensured the rights of all national minorities, religious confessions, including a 20,000-strong Jewish community and its cultural and religious life. I would like to underline that there is the Azerbaijani diaspora in Israel numbering more than 70,000 people.
It should be noted that Azerbaijan, which is part of the Islamic world, has friendly relations with both all Islamic countries and Israel. I believe that this practice can also serve as a model in the bilateral relations between civilizations.
Azerbaijan believes that in today's world there is no place for ethnic and religious confrontations, territorial claims, escalation of tension by forcing ethnic and religious intolerance, incitement to violence and hatred. All the issues should be solved in compliance with international law, constructive dialogue and mutual understanding. Our country, if necessary, can contribute to the strengthening of peace and stability in the Middle East, between Israel and the Islamic world.

- What about the situation of the Jewish community in Azerbaijan today, and how does this community impact on Azerbaijani-Israeli relations?
- Certainly both Jews of Azerbaijani origin, who now live in Israel, and the Jewish community in Azerbaijan have played and will further play a big role in the establishment and strengthening of ties between Azerbaijan and Israel.
Irrespective of national, ethnic and religious background, all citizens of Azerbaijan are bound together by common history, common destiny and common interests. Jews, like representatives of other nations and ethnic minorities living in Azerbaijan, have always been full members of society, and never felt themselves estranged. Krasnaya Sloboda (Red Town) village in Guba district, Azerbaijan, is the only place in the world densely populated by Jews except for the state of Israel. I can say with confidence that unlike Jews in Armenia, Jews in Azerbaijan have never faced any manifestations of anti-Semitism. Even amid bursts of anti-Semitist and growing anti-Israeli moods in the world, there was a friendly attitude towards Jews in Azerbaijan.
The Jewish community has taken an active civil position, and is playing a significant role in public, political, economic and cultural life of Azerbaijan. It is represented in the country`s parliament – Yevda Abramov is deputy chairman of the human rights commission at the Milli Majlis.
Nearly 20 Jewish public and cultural and charity organizations were registered and are operating in Azerbaijan. At the republican level, I would like to emphasize the activity of the organizations such as “House of Jews”, “Azerbaijan-Israel” society, Association of Jewish Women of Azerbaijan, Jewish Culture Center, as well as a department of Sohnut, an international Jewish organization, etc. Supported by the Jewish communities and the Embassy of Israel in Baku, these organizations hold many cultural events, publish Jewish literature, organize various events.
There are currently seven synagogues in the capital of Azerbaijan and in the cities of Guba and Oguz. In 2003-2012, the government of Azerbaijan funded the building of two new synagogues, which are among the largest ones in Europe and are remarkable for their architectural features. The Jewish religious community in Azerbaijan receives financial assistance from the state budget on a yearly basis.
Initiated by the Association of Jewish Women of Azerbaijan, the first Jewish kindergarten, supplied with cutting-edge equipment, opened in the country. There are five Jewish schools in Baku and Guba, which enroll nearly 1,500 pupils. Hebrew, Jewish culture and history classes opened on the base of secondary school No 46 in Baku. A private Jewish school has operated in Baku since 2003. Hebrew is taught at the Faculty of Oriental Studies of the Baku State University. President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, first lady, president of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation Mehriban Aliyeva and President of the CIS Federation of Jewish Communities and Ohr-Avner International Foundation Lev Levayev attended the opening of Chabad Ohr Avner education center for Jewish children in Baku under the Heydar Aliyev Foundation`s “Azerbaijan – Land of Tolerance” project on October 4, 2010.
Azerbaijan-Israel Friendship Society “Aziz” publishes “Azerbaijan-Israel” newspaper, and local Jewish society “Unity” in Krasnaya Sloboda publishes “Gudyal” magazine.
Jews living in Azerbaijan widely celebrate their national and religious holidays, and the head of state sends an official message to the Jewish community every year.


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