Azerbaijan Seeks To Co-Opt Western Religion Bloggers

An invitation arrives in my inbox:

Journey of Tolerance
30th August – 3 September 2013

To Whom It May Concern:

I hope you are having a good day.

My name is [redacted] and I am the Project Director for the Journey of Tolerance an initiative by the State Committee on Religious Associations of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The Project aims at raising awareness about cultural and religious tolerance and dialogue in Azerbaijan and promoting Azerbaijani model of tolerance worldwide.

For this purpose the State Committee on Religious Associations of the Republic of Azerbaijan invites well-known and motivated blogger’s writing about religion, dialogue among religions and cultures, education and society to travel to the Republic of Azerbaijan in order to get acquainted with the environment of religious and cultural tolerance in Azerbaijan.

On behalf of the organizer of this very important initiative we would like you to take part in the Journey of Tolerance, taking part from 30th August – 3 September 2013 as our exclusive guest.

In frame of the project we will make a 5 days tour to the different regions of Azerbaijan where different religions and cultures co-exist. You will have an opportunity to meet and talk to the people with different religious and cultural background and you will learn more about the Azerbaijani model of religious tolerance. As part of the project you will also meet with representatives of Azerbaijani government.

All expenses (round trip air tickets, accommodation, local transfer and meal) will be covered by the organizers.

We are available to discuss the project with you in more detail, in a time convenient for you.

We truly hope that you will be able to join us and we look forward to our collaboration.

Kind regards,

Project Director
The Journey of Tolerance
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Changing reality in 30 countries!

T. [redacted]

I’ve redacted the name is the person concerned works for a marketing company rather than for the State Commission itself. There follows a long blurb about the religious history of the country, again emphasising the theme of “tolerance”.

Certainly, a free visit to such a fascinating part of the world is tempting – but might a trip for “well-known and motivated bloggers” turn out to be a one-way ticket? The Institute for War and Peace Reporting noted last year:

As Azerbaijan hosted a United Nations-backed internet forum this week, officials boasted of the freedom of the web enjoyed by citizens.

Bloggers, however, said the picture painted by officials was deeply misleading. Instead, they said, people in Azerbaijan could be jailed for writing the wrong thing online.

…But the blogger Emin Milli, jailed for two-and-half years in 2009 after posting a video online called “press conference with a donkey”, mocking the president, said free speech was as elusive  on the internet as it was in everyday life.

…Dunja Mijatovic, special representative on media freedom at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE… hailed the release of bloggers like Emin Milli, Adnan Hajizade, Jabbar Savalan, Zaur Gurbanli and Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, but noted that other bloggers and journalists are tortured, persecuted and arrested.

And what of religious freedom in the country? “Representatives of Azerbaijani government” may not be willing to share the full story; Forum 18 noted last year:

Ahead of Azerbaijan’s hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest, Forum 18 News Service notes that freedom of religion or belief and related human rights such as the freedom of expression and of assembly remain highly restricted. Among issues documented in Forum 18’s religious freedom survey are: state attempts to counter discussion of violations with claims of inter-religious harmony and religious tolerance; officials behaving as if the rule of law places no limitations on their actions; unfair trials lacking due legal process; steadily increasing “legal” restrictions on and punishments for exercising freedom of religion or belief, often prepared in secret, forming a labyrinth of restrictive state controls; “legal” denials of international human rights standards Azerbaijan has agreed to implement; a highly restrictive censorship regime; enforced closures of places people meet for worship; a ban on praying outside mosques; jailing of prisoners of conscience exercising the right to conscientious objection to military service; arbitrary deportations of foreign citizens exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief; and severe denials of human rights in the Nakhichevan exclave. Azerbaijan is likely to remain a place where fundamental human rights are violated with impunity, and the state tries to make exercising human rights conditional upon state permission.

Further, in October:

Following serious criticism of Azerbaijan’s Religion Law by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Ali Hasanov of the Presidential Administration blamed this on “translation errors” in an “unofficial translation” he claimed had been used for the legal Opinion. However, a Venice Commission spokesperson told Forum 18 News Service that the translation on which the Opinion was based was an official translation supplied by the Government…. Hasanov also claimed that the Venice Commission “now considers that the Law .. completely reflects European standards.” The Commission’s Opinion found that the Law contains “restrictive provisions which are against international standards”. The Venice Commission spokesperson told Forum 18 that it fully stands by its Opinion.

The “State Committee on Religious Associations”, also known as the “State Committee for Work with Religious Associations”, is run by a certain Elshad Isgandarov. He responded to the Venice Commission by arguing that

“It is wrong to make a speech only from an academic point of view. Azerbaijan takes into consideration the opinion of the Venice commission, analyses and gives reaction. But Azerbaijan is an independent in this and other spheres and pursuing the policy meeting its national interests and geopolitical position.”

According to a suggestive report in June:

Shortcomings are recorded in work of some religious communities which are eliminated as a result of the positive intervention by the state, Isgandarov noted.

In February, Isgandarov visited Saudi Arabia:

On 6 February, he met with the Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Saleh bin Abdulaziz. At the meeting Elshad Iskandarov expressed satisfaction with the two countries.


Azerbaijan is not the only country to emphasise the cultural self-expression of religious minorities as a substitute for evidence of true political freedom – China is another example.

UPDATE: And here’s another example of how the country is run; the Washington Post noted a couple of days ago:

Khadija Ismayilova is known as one of the only investigative reporters — if not the only investigative reporter — in Azerbaijan, an energy-rich former Soviet state that Freedom House defines as “not free.” That has proven risky. For the second time in the year and a half since she began investigating possible corruption in the family of President Ilham Aliyev, a video recording of the female journalist at home with her boyfriend has surfaced online. The officially unexplained emergence is widely considered by rights groups are likely part of an intimidation campaign, common against journalists in Azerbaijan.

In March 2012, when Ismayilova began looking into questionable business investments by Aliyev family members, she received a letter that read only “Whore, behave. Or you will be defamed.”