Inter-Religious Mutual Comprehension


During more than half century, most European States have moved from nation states to economic co-operation and now in to a socio-political Union of countries. During this time, European entity has received guest workers, refugees and highly qualifies workers from outside the borders of Europe. Their presence has benefited many West European, not only as a source of cheap labor but also turned Europe into a de facto inter-cultural, inter-ethnic and inter-faith continent.

Unfortunately, instead of appreciating this permanent change, many Europeans were led to believe by the opportunistic politicians and media that minorities, especially ones with Muslim background were destroying the fiber of European identity, which was based on Christianity, democracy and rule of law. That artificial focus resulted in a constant tussle between the progressive and nationalist forces within Europe and a noticeable deterioration of relations between ethnic and religious minorities and the majority communities in many countries in recent years.

Official doctrines of ‘state multiculturalism’ have largely failed to promote minority participation and the creation of inclusive civic identities. In rhetoric, law, and policy-making, the commitment of many European societies to inter-culturalism has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. Meanwhile, minority/immigrant communities have experienced a dramatic deterioration in the conditions of their life, with new challenges ranging from more subtle forms of discrimination to pressures for one-sided ‘integration’ and from legal persecution to increasing violent attacks on their communities.

If we compare the current state of affairs in the European countries, where important political leaders like David Cameron of Great Britain, Angela Merkel of Germany and the former president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy have declared multi-culturalism as dead and buried, with Azerbaidjan, which is the current Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, we see a marked difference in its approach.

Without looking away from prejudices, racism, abuses of human rights and other societal ills in the ex CIS countries, we notice that it has worked within a very different set of legacies and cultural/political conditions to promote alternative models of interculturalism – often more successfully than in European countries.

In contrast to European approaches of subsuming ethnic, religious, and cultural identities into an overarching scheme of one-way ‘integration’ into an alleged majority ‘way of life’, post-Soviet governments have experimented with ‘vertical’ models that acknowledge and promote multiple identities. The multi-national, multi-cultural, and multi-religious nature of the Azerbaijani state has been enshrined in the constitution.

This acknowledges not only the realities of life in a country with multiple ethnic and religious groups dispersed across its territory; but it also marks a correction to decades of repressive Soviet rule that sought to subsume ethnicity and religion into a unitary state identity. Successive Azerbaijani governments have actively promoted closer ties religious groups and attempted to build new institutions that promote civic unity through ethnic, national, and religious pluralism.

The experience of post-Soviet Republics of the CIS has shown that there are viable and better alternatives to the models of ‘state multiculturalism’ practiced in Europe. It underlines the significance of actively embracing pluralism as a positive reality and opportunity, not as a ‘problem’ that has to be managed or subsumed into a fixed cultural identity. At a time when European governments talk of a ‘failure of multiculturalism’, Azerbaijan’s engagement with inter-culturalism and tolerance serves as a reminder that more, not less, pluralism and mutual respect in the public sphere are needed to ensure participation and social cohesion.

Whereas a number of European countries have reacted to perceived ‘failures’ of multiculturalism by promoting a rigid sense of identity served by forced ‘integration’ and suffocation of religious and cultural identities, Azerbaijan has shown itself more committed to acknowledging diverse identities and providing more ample space for their representation in the public sphere.

But such commitment needs to be constantly restated, deepened, and defended against voices that call for more restrictive policies or even advocate a dramatic change of course towards more rigid ‘identities‘ at the expense of cultural and religious pluralism.

Ethnic and religious minorities, in Europe, including Azerbaijan are a reality. They cannot be wished away or swept under the carpet. They need to be acknowledged, appreciated and supported so that they have the possibility to contribute, engage, participate and have the greater sense of belonging.

This in our opinion is a pre-requisite for an inclusive society for all its citizens. The aim of this Symposium is to discuss the role and different models of interreligious living together and intercultural dialogue as a tool for economic and political development in the Council of Europe member states.