Azerbaijan is the first Muslim democracy in the world, said leading educationist Shafag Mehraliyeva to The Hindu. In an exclusive interview, Ms. Mehraliyeva who represents the ADA University of Azerbaijan, a leading centre of liberal studies in the South Caucasus region, highlighted Azerbaijan’s ancient cultural links with India as evident in the fire temples near capital Baku and urged closer educational and cultural ties between two sides.
“Azerbaijan was declared a Muslim democracy in 1918. This was generally a result of the wave of enlightenment and democratic movement spilling into the Caucasus region from western Europe to Russia and from Russia into the Caucasus and at that time we were part of the Russian empire,” Ms. Mehraliyeva said, recollecting the “right decisions” that the society of Azerbaijan took by prioritising education for the younger generations with the help of the wealth that it acquired from its petroleum – “black gold” – resources.
Ms. Mehraliyeva said that Azerbaijan has a rich tradition of secularism and liberal values that have given it a unique identity, making it hospitable for visitors and students of diverse cultural backgrounds. “When we declared ourselves as the first Muslim democracy, it was also the very first country that gave women the right to vote, the right to suffrage. It was done before it happened in the United States and before it happened in many western countries,” she noted.
The ADA University, Ms. Mehraliyeva said, ensures a liberal environment located in a strategically important area that has witnessed the dynamics of great powers for centuries.
In recent months, the educational centres of Azerbaijan have received greater interest as the educational infrastructure of nearby Ukraine has been considerably reduced because of the conflict with Russia. At least twenty thousand Indian students who were studying in Ukraine were airlifted by the Indian government under ‘Operation Ganga’. Azerbaijan too has a three-decades-long conflict over Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia.
“Safety of students is a real concern and a real commitment. I would never claim that geopolitical risks are not an issue for us first of all because of the location where we come from and on top of that Azerbaijan has been in a conflict with our neighbour Armenia. The situation changed two years ago when we took decisive action to retrieve occupied territories and now, we are in the stage of rebuilding our relationship with Armenia,” Ms. Mehraliyeva said, emphasising that a dialogue for a peace agreement is underway between Azerbaijan and Armenia and that will likely provide greater stability to the region.
Azerbaijan supported by attack drones from Turkey fought a short-lived battle with Armenia in 2020, after which most of Nagorno Karabakh went to Azerbaijan. Since then, a low-intensity conflict has been reported from the region even though both sides have been in talks mediated by Russia.
Ms. Mehraliyeva said that cultural and educational ties can play a vital role in bringing countries closer and Azerbaijan’s cultural ties with India are far too deep to be neglected. She referred to the export of Bollywood films to Azerbaijan during the Soviet days when Hollywood films were banned in the Soviet republics.
“You can see posters of Hema Malini and Dharmendra in our homes even now,” she said, highlighting the cultural connection that can bring both sides closer.
Ms. Mehraliyeva also mentioned that Azerbaijan has empowered women for more than a century and issues like hijab do not become part of the public discourse, explaining “Because, in our culture, it should be left to a woman’s own decision.”