Omar Jallow: Assessing the Practice of Multiculturalism in Azerbaijan, June 2016

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21 June 2016
Omar Jallow, CRRC Azerbaijan 2016 Fellow
Azerbaijan’s multiculturalism policies have been loudly trumpeted in recent years and the country (
which hosts both Palestinian and Israeli Embassies and has a long history of the peaceful
coexistence of religious groups) has been promoted as a model for surrounding countries,
particularly those blighted by sectarian division. Here I outline what we mean when we speak of
multiculturalism , and how official policies can help it flourish. I will then go on to assess the
success of state policies on multiculturalism, before discussing public attitudes data showing high
disapproval ratings of inter-ethnic and intercultural marriage which highlight the ongoing
challenges of genuine inter-cultural integration in the country.
What is multiculturalism?
The existence of human beings in any part of the world throughout history has a connection with
one culture or another. The food, shelter, belief system, clothing, values and knowledge systems of
different societies are all embedded in culture. Sociologically, culture explains much about how
and why people in a particular society act or behave in a certain way. However today we are
witnessing the historical development from a simple society with relatively few inhabitants - who
share a similar culture and arranged around villages - to a far more complex society with a large
number of people who have relatively different cultures. This is epitomised in the nation-state. We
live in a rapidly changing global society, which is increasingly bringing people of various cultures
into closer interaction with each other.
This interaction can have a positive or negative character depending on the level of cultural
sensitivityand respect for other cultural groups. Ethnocentrism
generallyleads to negative attitudes
towardsother cultures and ethnic groups, while a more culturallyrelativist
approachnurtures more
positive attitudes. For people to be successful in today's multicultural information-driven age, itis
necessary for societies to develop a culturally sensitive frame of reference and mode of operation. A
cultural relativist is traditionally distinguished by inclusivity, open minded and cultural sensitivity
(Rosado, 1994). Consequently, 'multiculturalism' is characterised by a situation where distinct
cultures peacefully live together as a single entity, often resulting from migration, amalgamation
(under colonialism) or other social developments - this requires institutionalised frameworks to
avoid discrimination on the basis of culture or ethnicity.
Multiculturalism has been simply defined as “the practice of giving importance to all cultures in a
society” (Hornby, 2006). It is further defined by Rosado as a "system of beliefs and behaviors that
recognises and respects the presence of all diverse groups in an organization or society,
acknowledges and values their socio-cultural differences, and encourages and enables their
continued contribution within an inclusive cultural context which empowers all within the
organisation or society”. On a societal level, it includes a set of interrelated beliefs and behaviors
recognising the rich diversity in a given society; respecting others by treating them the way they
want to be treated; acknowledging the validity of the cultural expressions and contributions of the
various groups; encouraging and enabling the contribution of the various groups to society to
achieve and deploy their maximum potential (Rosado, 1997).
Policy approaches to multiculturalism
A government looking to promote multicultural harmony must give due importance to cultural
diversity in its policy making and administration. Policies used to promote multiculturalism can
include advocacy of equal respect to the various cultures present in a society, cultural diversity
policies and of the attention of authorities to different ethnic and religious groups (Akhundova,
2015). In sum, the focus is to mold a society where every culture is considered important for the
continuous development of the society.
However to achieve this, constructive engagement by the citizens and the state are crucial. In all
interactions, citizens should recognise and respect each others’ cultures. The ability to sustain
multiculturalism in any society depends on cooperation between the citizenry and the government.
The Azerbaijani state serves as an interesting example of where this has been vigorously and
vocally pursued.
How Multiculturalism is Sustained in Azerbaijan
As might be expected for a country surrounded by neighbours including Russia, Iran, Turkey,
Georgia and Armenia, the historical development of Azerbaijan has been complex. However
discussions on multiculturalism in Azerbaijan have recently shifted from those focussed on race to
the issues of religion and immigration. It is important to note when we look at the case of
Azerbaijan that multiculturalism must be recognised not as anideology that aims to assimilate the
differences, but rather a daily way of life that in many cases has endured for centuries. It is only in a
trulytolerant society that multiculturalism can mutually enrich cultures and foster values that unite
different peoples (Habibbayli, 2015).
Factors including Azerbaijan's historical development, its geographical position and the ethnic
composition of the population have contributed to the existence of a number of different religious
groups in the country. Although 510 religious communities are presently registered in thecountry,