1918: "A truly secular, national and republican identity"
28 May 2018

"The republic of Azerbaijan of 1918 was the victorious result of a difficult, even potentially dangerous search for national identity.... a truly secular, national and republican identity", said Azerbaijani academic and thinker Erkin Gadirli whilst reflecting on the establishment of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Gadirli was speaking at an event held in Tbilisi on 11 May 2018 during which participants from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia joined together to mark the 100th anniversary of modern statehood in the South Caucasus.

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Azerbaijanis always considered themselves part of the bigger world - an Islamic and Turkic world - and they never considered a nationalist agenda. When the Russian empire captured the region the people of Azerbaijan found themselves part of another big part of the world - but this one was different, in terms of religion and politics, and was not quite friendly.

Azerbaijanis started thinking of creating a new identity. The question of who we are has always been very important and is an existential question. Soon Azerbaijani realised that, yes, we are Muslims, but it is no longer an advantage, on the contrary it was a disadvantage. What was to be done? Getting rid of our Islamic religious identity was not an option, but the quest for a new identity did not take long.

The spiritual father of Azerbaijan's new identity, Mirza Fatali Akhundov started pushing forward the idea of secularity. He was himself an atheist, despite being the son of a Mullah. For one to understand and imagine the stature of that person, the role he played in our history, one needs to think of him as Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire all in one person. He is really the spiritual father of the Azerbaijani nation, and in the decade after him Azerbaijan had its own theatre, opera, newspaper, and even a magazine which published cartoons and jokes about Islam and the Mullahs - long before Charlie Hebdo, and by the way no one was attacked for doing so. Here, in a Muslim society, we had a magazine which was satirising Islam and Mullahs. This was partly because Islam has always been part of the private life of Azerbaijanis, and never part of the public life. Azerbaijanis - the intellectuals, the elite - became secular, and secularisation is now deeply engrained in our identity because it defines our identity and our independence.

But as secularism was taking root, we were faced with another crisis of identity, because Russia started using confusing terms to identify the nation: first they called us Tatars, then Muslim Tatars, and then just Muslims. So, the people understood something had to be done. The new quest for identity was not a quest at all, it was actually a policy. The nation started identifying with Turkishness - the idea that we are Turks, Turkishness and pan-Turkish ideas started to grow in Azerbaijan, and even moved from there to Turkey.

The Turkish elite of the time were thinking of a model akin to the British Monarchy - keeping the Sultan in power but limiting his powers. Because of the 1918 Azerbaijan Republic and influenced by the many Azerbaijani intellectuals who had gone to Turkey after the Bolsheviks invaded, Turkey also decided to establish a republic. So, Azerbaijan at the time was exporting ideas.

When Azerbaijan was discussing its flag, it was agreed that it should have three horizontal stripes, blue for pan-Turkism, red for progress and green for Islam. There was an Islamic faction in the parliament called Ittihad. They were Islamists in the traditional way - believing in Sharia and so on. They proposed that the green stripe should be on top of the flag, but the majority decided to put blue first, emphasising the importance of pan-Turkism. And this is how we are: the Turkish identity prevails over the Islamic identity.

This was the case in 1918 when the Russian empire collapsed, and even though people at that time where much more religious than now, less educated, and poorer, they stuck to the nationalistic ideas and Turkic identity, rather than the Islamic one.

And when the Soviet Union collapsed this was reconfirmed. We did not have much discussion on the Islamic identity since the Turkic identity was the leading force in terms of national identification, and it still is the case.

It is important to understand how crucial this is for Azerbaijan, and even Russia must take this into account. In time of trouble or crisis in the region Azerbaijan always looks to Turkey. Even Iran understands this. Iran is a very interesting country in terms of its relations with Azerbaijan, and I will again refer to the founding Father of Azerbaijan Mamed Amin Rasulzade, who wrote a small pamphlet called the Siyavoush of our century. Siyavoush is a chapter of a Persian poem. The Chapter talks about the animosity, rivalry and wars between Iran and Turan. In 1918 Iran questioned the identity of Azerbaijan, because Iran did not want to recognise Azerbaijan with that name - since Iran has its own Azerbaijan - which we call Southern Azerbaijan, the bigger part of Azerbaijan populated by Azerbaijani Turks, and Iran was not happy that the northern part of Azerbaijan was calling itself Azerbaijan Republic, and was therefore reluctant to recognise Azerbaijan. That happened again when the Soviet Union collapsed, but at this point it was driven to do so because many countries recognised Azerbaijan, and Iran had no choice but to follow, but they still have a suspicious attitude towards Azerbaijan.

In his pamphlet Rasulzade called Azerbaijan "A Siyavoush of our time", because people were again asking "Who are we?" Are we Iran, or are we part of Turan? Rasulzade closed this issue and said we are neither Iran nor Turan, we are both.

Although the story of Siyavoush is just a legend, it is interesting how Iran uses it. Last year I had a meeting with an Iranian diplomat, and he told, "Yes Turkey is our cousin, but we (Azerbaijan and Iran) are brothers. The message he was sending was easily understandable.

The republic of Azerbaijan of 1918 was the victorious result of a difficult, even potentially dangerous search for national identity. That is why the story of this republic is so dear to all of us in Azerbaijan. Unlike our Georgian and Armenian friends, who have always been ethnically and religiously distinct from other countries in the region, and did not have this process, we, throughout the centuries saw ourselves as part of a bigger world - Islamic and Muslim. Then, when we were cut off from this world by Russia, we had no other choice but to think of building a truly secular, national and republican identity.

Most of the founding fathers of the first republic were descendants of noble families. Most of them had official titles of Bey or Khan. They could have decided to establish monarchy, to choose someone from among themselves as a great Khan or Shah. But they decided to build a republic instead. Of course, one could argue that this was a global trend: Russia had declared a republic, Georgia and Armenia also, as well as many others. Yet no one would have objected if they had done so, especially within the country which was much less educated, much poorer and much more religious than now. They simply decided they wanted a republic. They established such a remarkable historical example of surviving as a nation, whilst waging war, while searching for identity, while dealing with global powers.

What we have now in Azerbaijanis a bit shifting away from that tradition. This is the sad part of the story, but it is a different story and unfortunately, I have run out of time.

source:  Erkin Gadirli is a respected Azerbaijani academic and thinker, based in Baku. He was speaking at an event held in Tbilisi on 11 May 2018 during which participants from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia joined together to mark the 100th anniversary of modern statehood in the South Caucasus. The event was organised by LINKS (DAR) and the Borjomi Innovators Network. Read more about the event here

Photo: First members of the parliament of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic