Functional Secular Islam

For an example of a place in the world where secular life within a Muslim majority country has managed, by and large, to function peacefully and without incident, look no further than … Azerbaijan!

Wait, where?

Azerbaijan: Islam Comes with a Secular Face

Huh, I guess so.

Azerbaijan was originally a Shi’a Muslim nation before being forced to outwardly abandon its faith during the Soviet era … but even after the collapse of the USSR and the restoration of some religious traditions during the 1990s, decades of secularism, its critical treatment of spirituality, as well as its focus on arts and education have had the effect of blunting any kind of reactionary move toward radicalism – or even significant religiosity – as seen in other parts of the world.

The government, while giving a formal nod to Azerbaijan’s Islamic heritage, actively works to reinforce the country’s secular orientation. Religion is not taught in Azerbaijani public schools, mosques must register with the government, and strict controls mandate what religious reading materials can be sold in shops. References to Azerbaijan’s identity relate to purely secular matters – the country’s booming oil-and-gas industry, the makeover of downtown Baku or the launch of the South Caucasus’ first communications satellite this February.

Interesting contrast to countries like Russia, which quickly re-embraced Orthodox Christianity soon after the collapse.  Obviously we’re talking about two vastly different cultures previously under the yoke of a single authoritarian rule, but it certainly provides an interesting counterpoint to the notion that nations that adopt Islam are condemned to go down a road to extremism, violence, and ruin.  My guess, and I don’t really know enough about Azerbaijani history to say this with certainty, is that their Muslim traditions may not have been as strict or oppressive compared to those of other neighboring countries to begin with.

(If Wikipedia is to be believed, the collective Azerbaijani tendency to see beyond their religious identity was present as early as the 19th century, as both Sunni and Shi’a saw the benefit in identifying instead with their common Turkic heritage as a way to present a united front against external religious influences from places like Iran.)

This isn’t to say that radicalism doesn’t exist, but it’s been met with very little support or interest among those in the government or mainstream society to get it off the ground (for now).  Their continued approach of maintaining a strong secular rule of law combined with a thriving culture that values education and equality is their best hope for keeping it that way.

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