Monday, 22 November 2010

A "Borderline Atheist" Muslim.

I wanted to share an interesting comment from a discussion I got into on Facebook recently.

It all started with someone adding the link about the Pope deciding condoms had some use, after all. One thing led to another, some people defending the Catholic Church; me, as usual, making a silly joke....

But, however tempting it might be, I don’t want to get into the Pope and condoms subject tonight. I just wanted to share this comment from a young Azeri male that I found amusing and depressing at the same time. He pointed out how intolerant atheists were; to which I said ‘Of course, religious people are famously tolerant’. 

And to that, he replied:

" Majority of religious people are very tolerant in my experience. A lot more tolerant and loving than the secular fundamentalists - Johan Hari and Dawkins & co, who hide their real hatred of Islam and Muslims, behind their general attack on ...religions. Today they are banning face-veils and attacking halal food; tomorow they'll ban headscarfs, day after that they'll be burning mosques. You know how these things develop in Europe...

Furthermore, even though I'm borderline atheist myself, I cannot ignore or reject the positive, social unifying, disciplining and mobilising qualities of religious belief. Armenians are a good example. Now, take a look at the video of our hero, Mubariz Ibragimoglu's funeral few weeks ago - see what happens towards the end; listen to what the crowd chants and you'll understand why our victory in Karabakh is inevitable and the role Islam will play in mobilising the nation.

Also I think we have a real battle on our hands against real enemies of Azerbaijan - Alievs and Armenians. Lets concentrate on that instead of picking fights against our own culture and identity. Im Muslim not because I believe in supernatural but because Im Azeri and my culture is inconceivable without Islam and traditional values associated with it, and of which Im extremely proud. The only thing I regret is not always staying true to these values and sometimes buying into the free-for-all, liberal bullshit. Thankfully Ive grown up now and see things more clearly and objectively."
I thought of replying... But then, I realized that I, actually, for once, had absolutely nothing to say. I mean, where would I even start? All I could say was  WOW’.  That was it. That one word summarized all my emotions and ended the pointless debate. 

But yet, I have so much I could ask this young man. If only I thought there was any point to it.


  1. You could have asked him what part of Azeriness got to do with being Muslim? To be precise, we were Zoroastrians before we were forced into Islam...which is what our "tolerant" Muslims don't accept. But overall, that is the stupidest thing I've heard. It's nationalism gone wrong.

  2. Well Scary, religion is always a delicate point. At least, that's how I see it. I guess that if we are at ease with our own conscience, we are alright.

  3. Is it a must for Azeris to mention Armenians even if you are talking about pope, condoms or religion????!!!!!!

  4. Sorry to burst the guy's bubble...

    The notion that majority of religious people are very tolerant is laughable. The main point of any religion is that it offers the only true path to salvation - which automatically makes everyone with a different belief system an inferior person. Christians who tolerate Muslims and Muslims who tolerate Christians are simply not true believers - they pick and choose stuff from their "holy" books.

    Regarding Islam as a tool for building national identity... Islam was never an exclusively Azerbaijani religion in the same way Apostolic Orthodox church was exclusively Armenian. It was disseminated by Arabs as they built their empire, much like communism was disseminated by Soviets to support theirs. Revival of Shia Islam in Azerbaijan will play into the hands of Iranians, who have long made this religion an instrument of government oppression. Surely your friend doesn't want ayatollahs to use Friday prayers to manipulate public opinion in Azerbaijan?

  5. @Aliceintroubleland: I know. So stupid. I can't think of any other word to use here. Very,very sad. I guess he might have been trying to demonstrate just how tolerant he is?

    @Gabriela: Yes, but I don't think the subject should be avoided. It is interesting for me to try to understand other people, who think so differently from me. I mean, this brief glimpse into the young guy's mind was just priceless. And shocking.

    @Riyad: Well, yes. That's what I was trying to point out to him when I said 'famously tolerant'. Especially some.

    So yes, laughable to you and me, not to this young man. He is a borderline atheist but also is a true Muslim, can't you see?? He used to be confused before, but now he can see very clearly. :)

  6. The difficulty with his response is that he sounds educated, with the language he uses, but when you pick apart his argument, there is nothing there but a string of sentences. I always am interested in knowing who 'they' are when people say 'they are banning headscarves' etc. as it sounds like my mum when she is quoting the Daily Mail as if it is really true. The one point that he makes is that Islam is more of a culture in Azerbaijan, than a religion. It is this aspect that makes Azerbaijan a very tolerant society, in my opinion.

  7. The sad thing is this is indeed a supposedly educated person who was part of the "orange revolution" movement in Azerbaijan back in 2005. Revolting back to the dark ages? His 'point' is beyond nonsensical.

    And it just shows how absolutely insecure religious people are, especially Muslims for some reason. So apparently Dawkins just hates Muslims and his whole atheism story is just a cover-up to disguise this. Fascinating.

  8. @Gwen: Have you seen the video I shared on Facebook? Where an Islamic clerk (not sure who he is) is giving an advice on how to beat your wife? Check it out.


    I just hope this idea that the Azeri cultural values and morals are based entirely on Islamic principles does not go this far.

    @Leyla: That was exactly what I felt when I read the bit about R.Dawkins plotting against the Muslims. Insecure, paranoid... and easily offended. But then again, my Jewish friend believes everyone who does not support Israel is simply anti-Semitic.

  9. We had a comment from the guy himself. Unfortunately it had to be passed on to me as it never made it here. It is way too long...I will break it into two parts.


    scary azeri

    First, I'd like to disagree with you - I think there is plenty to say and the debate must happen if Azerbaijan is to avoid our own version of culture wars in the future.

    It is clear that there is a massive gulf between different sections of Azerbaijani society, reminiscient in some ways of the Soviet-era divisions between the russian-speaking intellegentsia and the masses. Today, it is increasingly western-educated and diaspora Azerbaijanis who condescendingly take it upon themselves to "civilise" Azerbaijani people. The gulf between the two groups is massive and fault lies with the former group, which, in its celebratory embrace of the mantra of tolerance, liberal niceness and general cuddliness and cuteness, have lost much of what made them Azeri, I suppose. Ive lived in Britain for 15 years and have more in common with ordinary Azeri people than some of the "new and improved" Azeri commenters on this blog, some of whom were truly shocking examples of Azeri/Muslim self-hatred so reminiscient of the "Baku nation" mentality of the past. Really sad. Zoroostrians... please... Its like the British saying they are pagans.

    I was very much part of that division and as someone mentioned in the comments set about "educating" and "civilising" the "backward" about human rights and free elections and how its important to "network" blah blah - in 2005 "orange revolution" etc. The last 5 years have been an eye-opener and I, like many others, have to come to realise the complexity of the problems facing Azerbaijan.


  10. (cont...)

    So let me set a few things straight and respond to some of the comments:

    Aliceintroubleland, YES it is necessary to mention Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territories each and every time. As a Karabakhi Azeri whose relatives were ethnically cleansed from their homeland in 1992, I consider liberation of our lands as a single most important priority facing our nation and 99% of Azerbaijanis share my sentiment... not counting the self-haters and the confused.

    Ryad Mammedov, you're an atheist, congratulations, but as I said in MY experience religious people have been only tolerant and honest. Maybe Im lucky but your understanding of religious belief is warped and removed from the reality of actual religious practice that we see around us everyday, e.g. the Church of England was the only institution to speak out against Rupert Murdoch's attempt to take full control over BSkyB.

    Your view of Islam in Azerbaijan is even more disturbing. Your selective use of history is disingeneous. We have been Muslims for a millenia and it was Sefevid Turks, our ancestors, who spread Shiite Islam accross the Middle East.

    ( more....)

  11. ( part III)
    Islam is on the rise in Azerbaijan. For me, like majority of Azerbaijanis, it is a cultural norm, a tradition rather than a belief system, let alone a political ideology. But for a growing number of disillusioned and disempowered people this is changing. Banning it won't work. Insulting it won't work. The state must engage with these issues responsibly and the democratic movement, of which I am a member, must never marginalise itself by associating with the views expressed in your, Fidan's and Leyla's comments.
    Dont forget the green stripe of our flag. Islam is part of our national identity whether you like it or not. I never said I was a true Muslim - Im Muslim because Im Azerbaijani - a nominal point of our common identity that binds us within a wider cultural context, where Azerbaijan belongs. If you want to reinvent our national identity and attach it to European or whatever pillar, congratulations again, but you're on your own.

    Gwen, you purposefully misquote me - I said "today they're banning faceveils" not headscarfs. They being in this case the French. They're banning minarets - the Swiss; burning Korans - pastors in the US; killing Muslim women inside courthouses - Germany ( and so on...
    You and everyone here cannot in all you magisterial liberal tolerance deny that there is a growing and real persecution of Muslims (and increasingly other minorities) accross the Western world. This of course comes in response to 9/11 and the wars that followed it, three decades of immigration and now the economic crisis. Whatever the reason this is not paranoia but a founded fear of persecution.

    (and more!)

  12. hopefully the final part?

    Islam and Muslims are currently a particularly fashionable target. Whilst my phrasing re Dawkins & co was perhaps clumsy, it is true that the atheist/religion bashing brigade has been very effectively utilised by the far right and the conservative establishment in its targetting of Muslim people and disassociating yourselves from your muslim heritage wont make the racists like you better. You're still a Muslim, because that they will define you.
    It is disingenious, Leyla, to dismiss real fears of real people as paranoia. You know Im not religious, Ive made it clear what Islam means to me. I think we even discussed this issue in person. The reason you did not get my point is because typical of militant atheist, you're blinded by your hatred of religious belief and are truly intolerant of other people's view. Liberal fundamentalism in action. In the process, Leyla, you've constructed a wall between yourselves and majority of your compatriots which no language skill could ever bridge. Your circle of friends (and mine in the past) is far from representative of mainstream opinion in our country.
    Its also typical of islam-bashers to bring out "videos" and "artciles" about "those barbaric, savage Muslims who beat their wives and stone people etc. Its a tired tactic aimed at delegetimising the mainstream religious community.
    No, Scary Azeri, by traditional Muslim Azeri values I mean things like - its not OK to dump your parents in old people's homes, its not OK to put topless pictures of barely legal teenage girls on page 3 of national newspapers, its best to have children in marriage (than outside), families should help each other, family is paramount and so on. If you find these objectionable then you not an Azeri that I and 99% of Azeris I know are. Thats Ok, but please, dont even start thinking that your way, your choices are in any way moral or otherwise, superior to those of Azerbaijani people back home, religious or otherwise.

    Being abroad we have no right to preach, patronise or lecture a beaten down nation, with 20% of its territories occupied and a petro-dictatorship in tow. We dont face their choices and have no right to judge. We have a duty to help.
    That is why I and many of my colleagues in Azeri opposition have rethought our approach in the wake of 2005 election and since. Its time for Azeri democrats to recover our national mission, shake off the liberal ideology (and its sponsors), discredited as they are in the bloodbaths of Iraq and Afganistan (torture etc) and offer Azerbaijani people an authentic vision that speaks to their daily, real-life concerns. We should not be lecturing them about "human rights" or trying to change their faith. We should serve them, not our moral aspirations, which in truth have nothing to do with universal moral laws.

  13. @Borderline Atheist Muslim:

    Thanks for taking your time, a glimpse into your mind is fascinating.

    I won’t say much as, like I said before, there is simply no point. However, just a couple of comments I wanted to make.

    Firstly, I did not realize you were an active member of the opposition movement. I would imagine using religion and Islam is a fantastic way to mobilise and use the crowds to your advantage. Yes, Islam is increasingly popular in Azerbaijan right now- more than ever, especially amongst the poor. It is what happens. Just like other religions are on the rise across all ex-Soviet countries. Perhaps, that is one easy way to find an identity lost during the soviet era. I appreciate that. And trust me, I know! I am in minority, as well as people like Leyla and Fidan. I am however, glad to know those girls exist.

    You also said we have no right to preach. I am not sure why you think your lecture here is any different? You were the one who started bringing up your party slogans into the Pope and condoms discussion. I appreciate, as I said, that this is what you have to do. But, to me, anyone who says that he does not really believe in God, but then uses religion to influence the crowds is a hypocrite.

    It is quite ironic that you think people like Fidan and Leyla are trying to "civilise" poor Azeris. I don’t think they are trying to do anything. It is you who is using the crowd's mentality. You, who lived away from your loved country for 15 years. You, who basically says oh, well I am educated enough to know better, but all those people are religious, therefore I will claim I am a Muslim. A borderline atheist one.

    Finally, as for Azeri morals you mentioned I LOVE them. I am proud of them. I totally agree with you on this. Yes, I get your point that the religion has had an impact on the culture. What I disagree with is that being Muslims is the only reason Azeris have their cultural values. But that is a common thing all religious people use when they try to insult all non-believers. My personal morals are just fine, and I have no need for God or Allah to watch over me to ensure I behave.

  14. Apologies, it wasn't a purposeful misquote, just really busy at work and didn't check back. Why would I misquote on purpose? It doesn't further my point in any way which was to question who 'they' are. I don't think it is right to ascribe 'they' to a whole nationality - just those that are most powerful at influencing policy-making. These people could be religious, they could be athiest. The original point of the whole discussion was about tolerance. The fundamental basis of all mainstream religions is tolerance of others. Some people practice this well, some people don't.

    Western democracy developed over 100s of years. It will take many years to develop in post-Soviet countries as these countries go through the cycle of attitudinal change which is required to accommodate Western definition of democracy, if that is really what the people in these countries want. I've spent 13 years in Azerbaijan, my team and I do a lot of work on democratic development from a social rights perspective and we see a lot of positive change, it is not all gloom and doom - only if you view it through western perspective.


  15. Does that boy think that I am not Azeri enough or not patriotic enough if I don't identify myself with arabs or Pakistanis? Islam as a unifying idea?!?! Doesn't that young man know that many Armenians since 1966 participated in the Palestinian Arab movements? Ufff!

  16. Thanks Gwen

    You say: " I don't think it is right to ascribe 'they' to a whole nationality - just those that are most powerful at influencing policy-making". Yet militant atheists and secular fundamentalists routinely do the same in respect to religious people. read the comments here - according to people here all religious/Muslim people are intolerant bigots, who beat their wives, hate gays and Jews. It seems the taste of one's own medicine is rather bitter...

    Its great you are invoved in Azerbaijan but your asessment is rather flawed. In a country where political dissent has been stifled, journalists and bloggers routinely imprisoned and elections are constantly rigged IT IS all doom and gloom, unless you are a Westerner of course.

    And please spare us the patronising "It takes time, look at our Western societies and how long it took us" lectures - we heard them all since 1993. We are not building some Western-model of democracy. Azerbaijan has its own democratic historic pedigree and needs no lessons from countries that violate international law by illegal invasions, use torture and drop depleted uranium munitions on Afgan wedding parties...

  17. Kamil

    Firstly, thanks for "boy" - I see Scary Azeri's followers are uniformly patronising and condescending. Typical of "this type/class" of people, I suppose...

    Typically you also have a self-hating, warped view of Islam. I dont know about Arabs or Pakistanis - my Islam is Azerbaijani and has been for a thousand years. It is imperial Islam of Shah Ismail and progressive Islam of Molla Nesreddin. Our people's entire history is history of the development of the Islamic theology, politics and society. Your ignorance is shocking.

    And yes Im aware of links between Armenian terrorists and Arab nationalists. So? What does that have to do with Azerbaijani Islam.

    And finally, I urge everyone to read 2004 book by Arif Yunus, "Islam in Azerbaijan" (I co-translated some chapters) if you want to understand what Azerbaijani Islam was and is.

    And please read less loonies like Dawkins and Hitchens, and be more tolerant, my secular fundamentalist friends. The paradox is that God cannot be defeated, even if He does not exist. Thats His, I guess, power.

  18. @Murad...I had to re-post your comment in reply to me, as I dont like using my name on the blog. So here is your reply:

    Thanks Scary,
    Once again there is much misunderstanding. Its not about using religion but recognising that religon is a factor that cannot be wished away. We either engage with it in Azerbaijan or watch Iranian and Saudis exploit it for the own purpose. We should never allow a theocracy to rise in Azerbaijan. But ignoring, ostracising and rejecting a growing and increasingly politicised movement is simply wrong and dangereous. Aliev regime's policy of banning domestic Islamic organisations had only added fuel to fire. Furthermore I do not preach at people inside Azerbaijan but will always stand up against idiotic religion-bashing. There is a clear difference. You guys preach condescendingly at people whose lives you know nothing about. I simply accept them for who they are and have realistic expectations of what can be achieved. I do not understand where you got the idea that I intend to use relgion to influence the crowds or popular mentality. I dont believe in God but believe in relgion as a cultural force. I celebrate Ramadan the way you mentioned in your email you celebrate Chrismas without being a Christian. I dont see how that makes me a hypocrite? Because I respect other Azerbaijanis' right to believe and refuse to question their religious freedom? Your argument is absurd. And finally I lived away from Azerbaijan not by choice but after being expelled from the country by the Aliev regime. I returned home in 2005 with a clear intention of serving my country, only to be deported and have my family persecuted. And what Im saying is that I love my people the way they are and accept my nationhood the way it is, warts and all. I want progress and improvement and remain committed to Azerbaijani republican ideals of 1900-1918 of Modernism, Turkism and Islamism. You shoul read up on this stuff - will do you good. And Azerbaijani traditional values and culture is firmly rooted in Islamic foundations. Its not a theory but a fact, like evolution.

  19. @Murad: It's funny how people get defensive and start throwing insults around... My comments weren't personal, and yet what I got in return were remarks about how MY understanding of various things is warped and disturbing. Just because our opinions are different doesn't mean they are "warped" - they are probably simply based on different life experiences. It must feel good though to label your opponents as "self-hating muslims". Just rolls of the tongue :)

    You are advocating a mellow Azeri version of Islam that's more like a set of cultural traditions. First of all, not of all these traditions are quite that good (subjugation of women comes to mind). Second, Islam in Azerbaijan became nominal after 70 years of Soviet rule, with KGB openly in charge of churches, mosques and sinagogues. It may turn fundamentalist and radical pretty fast, and as I'm sure you know, there is no shortage of powerful foreign interests that can influence this transition.

    I'm not suggesting people abandon their faith or their traditions. I'm just saying that education and economic development is the way forward.

  20. @Murad: I think it is funny that you attack Gwen, who was the only person here trying to be nice and understanding about your views. As I said, tolerant.

    But Gwen, Murad won't appreciate your work in Azerbaijan, because, according to him, he does not really believe in all that western democratic bullshit, liberal blah blah, whatever he said before. People like you are doing something he does not believe in or appreciate, sadly.

    @Murad...I was thinking of what I wanted to say to you now, but Riyad said it all for me.:) Absolutely all.

    @Riyad, how the hell did you do that? Stolen my every thought. And beautifully done, too.

  21. As you wish. If you want to consider my opinion flawed, that's your opinion, I'm happy in my opinion, and not because I am a privileged westerner but because I am a human working with other humans and we're doing a good job - it is possible to see through other people's eyes too, when you've spent a long time in one place. I can get despondent sometimes, but negativity only breeds further negativity and that doesn't help anyone. I don't think that I am being patronising in saying that democracy as defined by the West has taken years to develop, it's a fact. I recognise that the standard pillars of democracy are weak here but I see that as part of the process of development that will change with time. Some people take a protesting approach, that has its place, and we take a cause-based approach, based on improving access to social rights (which are part of the trio which make up democracy, along with political and civil rights) but with the typical pillars of democracy embedded, and both approaches have their place. No situation is black and white - sorry, another cliche, but cliches are usually based on reality in some respect. I prefer to work within the grey areas, find something positive there and push forwards on that. It works for me, not for you maybe, but I will be tolerant about what other people think and do. There is space for everyone.

  22. Wow, what a wild ride. You know this reminds me. I was watching footage of a debate in US congress few weeks ago and a congressman (republican of course) was reading a passage from the Bible in response to his opponent while somehow managing to keep a completely straight face. I want a job like that where I could say whatever the hell I want and #1 not get fired and #2 not get laughed out of the room.
    Have they ever heard of “kotleti otdel’no, muxi otdel’no”? My guess is they haven't :):)

  23. Religion is tool to rule people.
    That probably never been in orthodox church or Roman catholic church in Baku or even Sheki and never seen how many azeries being converted. He should ask someone from real Islamic world is Azerb-n Islamic country ???? What do you think they answer after being seen pork in shops in Baku ???
    Anyway, religion is poison. r u want to be part of tribe?

  24. For the most part, Mr. Murad Gassanly has provided very thoughtful, rational, and lengthy arguments in defense of his opinion, while the majority of responders have simple provided condescending, empty retorts. Saying things like: "I won’t say much as, like I said before, there is simply no point" (Scary Azeri) is not conducive for any sort of discourse. Firstly, what Mr. Gassanly is proposing would probably be agreed upon by most cultural anthropologists and historians. Religion is simply another cultural element whose role in society morphs with time. Obviously, no one is proposing that Islam play the same role in Azerbaijani society that it did 200 years ago. However, committing an exercise in futility by trying to erase its influence is ignorant. Also no one is saying that one has to be a Muslim to be a 'real' Azerbaijani. I think Mr. Gassanly was simply proposing that pretending that Islam, which has been a part of Azeri culture since about the seventh century, is all of a sudden an anachronism that should be dispensed with is not very productive.

    Liberal Azeri-American

  25. This is not the time or place for “thoughtful and lengthy “essays on religion and politics. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to spend this much time writing long and in-depth responses. It has nothing to do with the lack of knowledge or lack of respect for the opposing opinion; it’s a practical matter of ROI of time & effort. This type of discussion needs to happen in person or at least over the phone to make any sense at all.

  26. i hate every one who hate ISLAM!!!
    ISLAM WILL DOMINATE WORLD! and usa dogs like you
    can not do anathing. soon Islam will rule in EU :))

  27. Islam has actually destroyed our culture, we have adopted arab values instead of our own ... We have a wonderful culture where men respect women and women respect men equally, Islam is putting this into jeopardy by introducing opression towards women. Being a non muslim does not make me less Azeri! I choose not to be muslim, it is not my religion! I don't know why this guy you mentioned has a problem with diaspora Azeris, we only want the best for our country we see the faults in our culture and we want to change it because we CARE! Many people are opressed by this religion, they cant fulfill their dreams because this religion is holding them back. My mother always tells me how much she missed in her youth because some things were not allowed and I'm not talking about sex, I'm talking about simple things such as going to gymnastics, competing at dance competitions. These things were not allowed, only russian girls were allowed to explore their talents because for an Azeri girl it was ''AYIB''. All this is to be blamed on religion. I believe in God, I'm actually a pretty spiritual person but I don't believe in Islam and It does not interfere with my Azeriness.