The study, whose findings were disclosed at a hearing in the European Parliament on Tuesday, says this is partly the result of a series of measures undertaken by the Azerbaijan government. Tommaso Virgili, a researcher at the European Foundation for Democracy, who authored the report, said these include a revision of the law on religious freedom.
Other steps credited with having contributed to the process, he told the hearing, include the monitoring of mosques that facilitate the detection of early signs of radicalisation.
The debate heard that this is one of the reasons why the level of radicalisation in Azerbaijan, a country with a population of just 9 million, is lower than in Europe.
The report, “Securalism in Azerbaijan,” was formally launched at the meeting, which was organised by the European Foundation for Democracy, a leading Brussels-based policy institute, in conjunction with the EPP and S&D groups in the Parliament.
The policy briefing, “EU Neighbourhood: the case for secularalism in promoting peace, dialogue and reconciliation,” is one of several similar events the Foundation is hosting and heard from several speakers, including MEPs Julie Ward and Tunne Kelam.
The 77-page the Foundation report says the threat of radicalism is present in Azerbaijan, a country rich in oil and gas deposits, and has grown “progressively” since the country became independent from the Soviet Union 24 years ago.
Outlining its findings, Virgili, said that while the threat of Islamic terrorism and radicalisation still existed in Azerbaijan, prevention measures had been effective.
He noted, “Azerbaijan was an interesting choice for this research because it is a secular republic with a Muslim majority but we were surprised by some of the findings, for example, people of Sunni and Shia denominations praying in the same mosque. This is unique and shows the positive impact of the multicultural model of that the Azerbaijani´s secular system.”
The report makes several recommendations, saying that Western support is “important” for the sustainability of the country and calling on EU policymakers to “cooperate” with Azerbaijan to tackle the phenomenon of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. It goes on to urge Azerbaijan to play a “more active role” in encouraging closer dialogue between the West and Islamic worlds.
Another keynote speaker, Fariz Ismailzade, Vice Rector of ADA University in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, also praised the “Azerbaijan model”, saying that elements of it could be “exported” to other countries in the neighbourhood.
Professor Valentina Colombo, of the European University in Rome, questioned whether Azerbaijan´s secular model was applicable to other Muslim countries such as Tunisia which had developed its own “interpretation” of Islam.
She said, “What the Muslim world really needs is an Islamic reformation from the inside. These countries need to highlight their own identity as a way of preventing infiltration by the kinds of Islam that can often be radical.”
Further contribution came from Julie Ward, a UK Socialist MEP, who recalled that Azerbaijan is located in a geopolitically volatile region and said the European neighbourhood is in the “convulsions of conflict of overwhelming complexity.”
“In Azerbaijan and across the region, historical grievances, religious warfare, ethnic tensions, economic interests and geo-political posturing all add up to an immense collage of human suffering.”
Addressing the issue under discussion, she went on, “Secularism is certainly a useful tool for the construction of open pluralistic societies and an important aspect of stable democracies, although it must be a very tolerant and accepting secularism. It must promote diversity, strong minority rights and genuinely come from the grass-roots upwards, with participation that is institutionally protected.”
Estonian EPP member Tunne Kelam, who has championed better and securer European cyber space and stressed the importance of social media in promoting peace and reconciliation, said “We in Brussels cannot be isolated to what is going on around us and that´s why we must address the issues highlighted today together.”
In a Q&A session, Henrik Herman Kroner, vice president of the Foundation for South-North Dialogue, acknowledged the progress made in creating a “more harmonious” relations between the different ethnic and minority groups in Azerbaijan. He went on to say that in his opinion, the country could not yet be regarded as a “fully-fledged” democracy.
By Martin Banks