The Armenian identity is centered around the Gregorian Church—Etchmiadzin, and the conviction that the Armenians are the oldest nation in the world, an innocent victim of genocide. In turn, Jews are sure of their uniqueness and genius and being the chosen people, and they also cultivate the memory of the Holocaust. The Persians consider themselves the oldest Aryan people in the world, the authors of the Avesta, the builders of Persepolis, the creators of the Achaemenid and Sassanian empires, trendsetters in poetry and fine arts in the East. The Arabs are convinced that their greatest contribution to history is that they gave the world the Prophet Muhammad, and the greatest book in the world, the Quran, is written in Arabic. The Turks have been following Ataturk’s precepts since the proclamation of the republic, and, with all due respect to the religion of Islam, they are building a European type secular society. The list goes on.
What are the specifics of Azerbaijani national identity? How do Azerbaijanis see their place in this world?
When we talk about the paradigm of the national identity of Azerbaijanis, two key worldview concepts immediately spring to mind—”Azerbaijanism” and “Turkism”.
At present, the dominant position in the official ideology is given to Azerbaijanism, while Turkism occupies the second, quasi-legal, but honorable place. The latter has many supporters, but for a variety of reasons, which will be discussed further, it was unable to take a dominant position in Azerbaijan. As for Azerbaijanism, its essence is very simple: “We are Azerbaijanis, citizens of Azerbaijan. We have a single Homeland—Azerbaijan, a single history, a single culture, a single language—Azerbaijani. Hand in hand, we are building our independent state together. We are a European nation and a conductor of Western progressive ideas in Asia.”
However, these general principles, these reference points are only the foundation, the cornerstone of the emerging concept. What if we approach the question more specifically? What place does Azerbaijan occupy among neighboring states, what is the essence and “brand” of this country, what is its mission in the modern world? Of course, Azerbaijanis have a certain national worldview, a vision of their place in the world. It took shape in a natural and spontaneous way, and it can be called “Azerbaijani universalism”. It did not just spring up out of nowhere. The emergence and development of “Azerbaijani universalism” was a direct and inevitable consequence of, firstly, the proclamation of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic on May 28, 1918, and, secondly, “Azerbaijani Turks” becoming “Azerbaijanis” in 1936. Without these two facts, the phenomenon of Azerbaijani universalism would not exist.
So, what is “Azerbaijani universalism” and how is it different from national ideas and worldview concepts of other peoples? Figuratively, its essence can be expressed in the words of the great Azerbaijani mystical poet of the 14th century Imadaddin Nasimi:
Both worlds within my compass come, but this world cannot compass me.
An omnipresent pearl I am and both worlds cannot compass me.
Because in me both earth and heaven and Creation’s “BE!” were found,
Be silent! For there is no commentary can encompass me.
Speaking specifically, Azerbaijani universalism is a spontaneously formed flexible syncretic worldview that combines an orientation towards the cultural heritage of different peoples, civilizations and cultures.
When speaking about the phenomenon of modern Azerbaijani culture, it is often with an emphasis on it being the crossroads of Asia and Europe, Christianity and Islam, Zoroastrianism and Judaism, the Arab, Turkic, Caucasian, Iranian and Slavic worlds. The same applies to the worldview, identity and self-awareness of the people living here. Moreover, all components of the syncretic identity of Azerbaijanis are in relative equilibrium, and when one of them outweighs the others, the equilibrium is disturbed, threatening collapse of the system. That is why all attempts to choose any one ethnic or cultural element as the central core of Azerbaijani national identity, regrettably, always failed.
Let’s start with language and ethnicity. Azerbaijani belongs to the family of Turkic languages. Until 1936 it was referred to as “Turk dili” (“Turkic language”) in the documents and constitution of Azerbaijan. Of course, a Turkic-speaking people, regardless of the specifics of ethnogenesis, cannot build its worldview paradigms on the basis that relegates all things Turkic into background and primarily cultivates, say, the Iranian principle. This leads to a “chimera”—an unproductive and unnatural synthesis of mutually exclusive principles. The founding fathers of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-1920), including those who had not only Turkic, but also Iranian roots in their genealogy—Mammad Emin Rasulzadeh, Mirza Bala Mammadzade and others—understood this. They knew that the percentage of Iranian blood in the veins of Azerbaijanis and the specifics of their ethnogenesis have nothing to do with it. All peoples are mixed, but in a Turkic-speaking country, attempts to build worldview systems without taking into account the Turkic factor are doomed to fail from the start.
Unfortunately, not everyone understands this today. Try to officially declare the Azerbaijani language “Turkic language” and call the Azerbaijanis “Azerbaijani Turks”, as they were called in the Azerbaijan SSR until 1936. This seemingly logical move, aimed at restoring the nation’s ethnic profile, would inevitably be regarded by certain segments of the population as a violation of syncretic national-cultural balance and an attempt to encroach on the rights of non-Turkic ethnic groups.
As soon as you utter the seemingly harmless word “Turk”, hordes of people immediately take offense. Ethnic minorities who have become part of the Azerbaijani nation, who have reconciled themselves to the word “Azerbaijani”, but do not and do not want to consider themselves Turkic, grow wary. For some reason, the word “Turk” always make them see the looming specter of formidable Pan-Turkism, which, allegedly, can turn them, non-Turks, into second-class citizens. Opponents of the Turkists usually accuse the latter of trying to undermine the unity of the multi-ethnic Azerbaijani nation. Another very common and often unfair accusation against the Turkists is “you flatter the Turks, you are working for Turkey!”
Some Russian-speaking intellectuals, who are afraid of any manifestation of the strengthening ethnic Turkic identity in society, also take offense at Turkists. After all, if Turkic nationalists strengthen their positions, they can force the rootless cosmopolitans to return to the fold of the national culture and to study their native language!
A return to the Turkic roots is a direct threat to the cosmopolitanism cultivated in society. The attitude towards secular pan-Iranism is, understandably, more tolerant. Unlike Turkists, local secular pan-Iranists do not criticize cosmopolitans for their poor knowledge of the native language, but simply pontificate on the greatness of the ancient Iranian culture in Azerbaijan, on mysticism, Zoroastrianism and esotericism. Abstract Iranophilia, fascination with the pre-Islamic Azerbaijan as part of the ancient Zoroastrian Iran cultivated in the Russian-speaking environment is a cosmopolitan worldview in itself: it does not imply a return to the roots, or the study of not only Azerbaijani but even Farsi. Besides, a part of the Russian-speaking elite, finds “pan-Iranism a la Azerbaijani” more graceful, esoteric and glamorous. It is important to stress that the object of adoration of the arty Russian-speaking pan-Iranists is not the modern obscurantist Shiite Iran, but the ancient pre-Muslim Persia, the homeland of Cyrus, Darius and other Achaemenids, Sassanids and Zoroastrians.
A contributing factor here is that many Azerbaijanis have not only Turkic, but also Iranian roots. Some of them in every possible way advocate the role of Iranian culture, literature, as well as the Iranian (“Aryan”, “Indo-Iranian”, “Zoroastrian”) component in the history of Azerbaijan, admittedly, replacing the word “Iranian” with the word “Azerbaijani” everywhere. But the excessive emphasis on Iranianism, Aryanism and Zoroastrianism is also perceived ambiguously by wider population. Again, at the same time, it introduces too grating a discord in the harmony and balance in the syncretic Azerbaijani identity, based not only on Iranian, but also on Turkic and Caucasian roots, and on the Zoroastrianism-unfriendly Islam in the religious environment. In this case, Turkists give as good as they get, branding all admirers of ancient Iran, Medes, Parthians, Atropatens, Zoroastrians, eternal fires, Iranian shahinshahs and the Mazandaran tiger as “pan-Iranists” and “Turkophobes”.
So, the essence of “Azerbaijani universalism” is that it is very difficult to isolate some ethnocultural component as the main one within its framework. There is no clear preference for any of the components of “Azerbaijanism” within this paradigm: neither Turkism, nor Iranism, nor Caucasophilia, because it is believed that this can destroy the holistic syncretic worldview of the Azerbaijanis, ultimately tearing the nation apart. In disputes on historical topics, one has to carefully avoid sharp corners and deftly steer the conversation away from a brewing conflict.
An important role is played by the fact that the ancient inhabitants of Azerbaijan were Caucasian tribes, including the Caucasian Albanians (Utii, Gargars, Legae, Tsavdei, Lpins, etc.). Therefore, in order to preserve territorial, state and ethnic continuity, many Azerbaijanis consider themselves to be the direct descendants of not only the Turks, Scythians, Iranian-speaking Medes, but also, mainly, of the Caucasian Albanians. In this regard, by origin, blood and genes, Azerbaijanis are often regarded as closely related both to modern Caucasian peoples (Georgians, Lezgins, Udins, some of the Karabakh Armenians with Caucasian-Albanian blood, etc.), and to ancient extinct peoples (Mannaeans, Urartians, Kutians, etc.).
Azerbaijani universalism is manifested in culture and everyday life as well. At an Azerbaijani wedding, you will hear the Turkic “Terekeme” and the fiery Caucasian lezghinka, something from Turkish pop music— Tatlıses or Tarkan—and languid Persian tunes, Elton John’s songs and Rozenbaum’s ballads, and the party will end with the bride and groom dancing the Argentine tango.
As for religion, one might say syncretism reigns here as well, albeit to a much lesser extent. First of all, Azerbaijan is a secular country. There are few practicing Muslims here, and even fewer religious fanatics. Being “ethnically Muslim”, many Azerbaijanis, nevertheless, consider themselves the spiritual heirs of the Zoroastrians (Azerbaijan is the Land of Fire!), Christians (Azerbaijanis are the heirs of Christian Caucasian Albania) and even Jews (the Khazars living in Azerbaijan practiced Judaism).
But syncretism and cosmopolitanism in culture manifest themselves not only at the everyday level. We observe a similar situation in terms of the global civilizational choice. On the one hand, Azerbaijan is a European country, a member of the Council of Europe, the winner of the Eurovision 2011 song competition, and on the other, a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and Baku was declared the “culture capital of the Islamic world” in 2009.
There is also an interesting situation with the national heroes of Azerbaijan. Disputes often arise among the intellectuals: can we consider, say, the Afghan Turk Nader Shah Afshar a national Azerbaijani hero, on the grounds that the Afshar tribe, to which Nader Shah belonged, played a significant role in the ethnogenesis of Azerbaijanis, and the Afshar language is identical to Azerbaijani? Or can we consider the legendary Attila the Hun a common Turkic (and thereby Azerbaijani) hero? Or is his relevance to Azerbaijan is too indirect? An Azerbaijani will proudly name the Khurramite Zoroastrian Babek, the brave Turkic warrior Koroglu, the Massagetean queen Tomyris, the Caucasian Albanian Christian Javanshir, and the Afghan Turkic Nader Shah among national heroes—the most avid Turkophiles will also mention Turkic Mongol Genghis Khan and his descendants Hulagu Khan and Timur.
The Turkic Orkhon-Yenisei scripts located in Siberia and their runic alphabet are rightly considered the cultural heritage of the Azerbaijanis, since the Azerbaijanis are a Turkic-speaking people. Our literary classics are scattered throughout the cultural ecumene of the East: these are Fizuli, who lived all his life in Baghdad, but wrote in Turkic, and Nizami, who lived all his life in Azerbaijan, but wrote in Persian. These are the Arabic-speaking philosopher Bahmanyar al-Azerbaijani, who lived and worked a thousand years ago, and the modern Russian-speaking prose writer Rustam Ibragimbekov. These are the medieval Caucasian Albanians Movses Kaghankatvatsi,
Movses Daskhurantsi, Davdak, Mkhitar Gosh and Kirakos Gandzaketsi (Ganjavi), whose works have survived, alas, only in Armenian. Finally, these are the remarkable 18th century Turkic ashugs-poets of Azerbaijan Molla Panah Vagif and Molla Veli Vidadi, who wrote in their native Azerbaijani language.
“Azerbaijani universalism” is explained by the fact that the Azerbaijani nation was formed from ethnically heterogeneous, absolutely unrelated elements—Turkic, Caucasian and Iranian. It is no secret that along with the Azerbaijani Turks (Oghuz and Seljuks), who gave the Azerbaijanis their language, the nation was also formed by non-Turkic local peoples, who were gradually mixing with it—Kurds, Tats, Talysh, part of the Lezgins and various mountain peoples of Azerbaijan. Each of them had their own language, customs and mentality in the past. Now it is all intermingled. But several decades are not enough to form a homogeneous mixture of—it takes centuries. It was over centuries that all homogeneous ethnic groups known today were formed, such as the French, as a result of the mixing of the Gallic, Germanic and Roman elements that took place more than 1,200 years ago. That is, the French had enough time for the heterogeneous Gallic-German-Romanic mixture to turn into a homogeneous mass called the “French nation”. The Turkish nation is even more heterogeneous ethnically than the Azerbaijani nation: it includes assimilated Lazs, Greeks, Slavs, Armenians, Arabs, etc. But the Turks were rallied and brought together into a single fist by the ethnic concept of Turkish nationalism. That is, their ideology is based on the ethnic idea, according to which the citizens of Turkey are not just residents of the Anatolian peninsula, Rumelia and the Balkans, but ethnic Turks.
In the Middle Ages, there was a Qizilbash ethnos of Azerbaijani Turks, which successfully competed with the Ottomans in strength and power. After the Azerbaijani Turks were renamed Azerbaijanis in 1936 and then thrown into a common melting pot with Caucasians and Iranians, this ethnos gradually became de-ethnicized and ceased to exist in the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR. In fact, we witnessed an ethnocide (cultural genocide) of the Azerbaijani Turks in Stalin era. They were eliminated not so much physically as ethnically and culturally. This was facilitated by the universal extermination of the Turkic aristocracy—beks and khans, which made it easier to break and assimilate the common people by Stalin and Beria’s methods. The population of the Azerbaijan SSR was small at the time. To turn the people into an ignorant, speechless herd, it was enough to eliminate only a few thousand of the bravest and most honest representatives of the Turkic elite, so it was done. The process of annihilation of the Turkic military-feudal aristocracy, which began in the 1920s, is vividly pictured (though from the point of view of Soviet agitprop) in old Azerbaijani films, such as My Seven Sons, The Last Pass, Rampant Kura.
As a result, the Azerbaijani Turks in the Azerbaijan SSR ceased to exist as an ethnos, and their de-ethnicized remnants mixed with the emerging multi-ethnic Azerbaijani nation. Is this a good thing? This is a complicated question.
First of all, one should not forget that de-ethnicization always leads to marginalization. Therefore, one should not be surprised at sometimes unworthy acts committed by some de-ethnized persons: after all, they have lost their roots and, with them, the notion of good and bad. This is the main problem of a de-ethnicized society, a society devoid of ethnic roots. This is the source of corruption, unscrupulousness, underdeveloped patriotism, and the alienation of the individual from the state and society. After all, the loss of the old by no means implies the instant acquisition of the new. The combination of several heterogeneous components does not immediately or necessarily lead to the emergence of a new entity. There is a period of time when the past has already been lost and the new has not yet been acquired.
So, what did we lose and what did we gain during the transition from Turkism to Azerbaijanism?
Having abandoned the ideology of Turkism in 1936, and setting our sights on Azerbaijanism, we lost the Turkic ethnic identity, and in return acquired a nationwide diversity and universality. Therefore, in contrast to the ethnically homogeneous Kyrgyz or Latvians, the Azerbaijanis show a greater discrepancy in the peculiarities of their mindset, values and behavior. It is already very difficult to fit them all to one template, to universalize their mindset and morals, to form a single ethnic psychology, an instinctive sense of ethnic kinship and cohesion, as well as a single morality, a common moral and ethical code, and national models of behavior. This is difficult because in the modern post-industrial world, the processes of ethnogenesis, so rapid and active only some one or two hundred years ago, have come to a standstill. The reason is the atomization of the individual in the world of the cutting-edge information technologies and the Internet. Now an enormous stream of information from all over the world is dumped on the layman head. Before television, radio and, in particular, the Internet were invented, people mainly communicated only with those living close by, in neighboring villages and cities. Therefore, separate parts of the nation were drawn to each other and small communities gradually merged into something bigger. As a result, languages and customs within the ethnos were unified and large nations were formed from small tribes and peoples. Now the unification of culture is proceeding in the mainstream of globalization, that is, individual people, having crossed national borders with the aid of the Internet, television, high-speed trains and airplanes, are no longer unified within their own nation, but merge directly into the mainstream of global mass culture. Therefore, in these conditions, there is no hope that the process of ethnogenesis in more or less developed countries like Azerbaijan will continue. On the contrary, fragile ethnic structures are being eroded and destroyed under the pressure of globalization.
The syncretic community, in which none of the components—neither Turkism, nor pan-Iranism, nor Caucasianism—is dominant, currently continues to exist in Azerbaijan.
As mentioned earlier, theoretically, only Turkism could have been able to play the role of a supporting structure within a community that speaks a Turkic language. That much is clear. Then, the question arises: was it necessary for us to reject Turkism in 1936? Was this rejection inevitable and dictated by political necessity? Another complicated question. There is an opinion that had we not rejected Turkism in favor of Azerbaijanism, it would have been difficult for us to preserve the integrity of the Azerbaijani statehood, because the many non-Turkic peoples living in this territory.
The situation is quite different in Iran, where, according to various estimates, from 30 to 40 million Turks live. In Southern (Iranian) Azerbaijan, ethnic Azerbaijani Turks constitute the overwhelming majority (over 95%) of the population in the provinces of East Azerbaijan, Zanjan and Ardabil. Moreover, the Iranian Azerbaijani Turks are direct descendants of the belligerent Qizilbashs, Shah Ismail’s allies, who created the Safavid Turkic empire in the 16th century. Kurds also live in the Iranian Ostan of West Azerbaijan, but they do not mix with the Turks and are separated from them. Although ordinary residents of, say Tabriz, have a weak national-state Azerbaijani identity, they have a stronger Turkic ethnic sense than the Azerbaijanis of the Republic of Azerbaijan. The people of Tabriz still call themselves Turkic, unlike us, even though the Turks of Iranian Azerbaijan do not have national statehood, their language is not official in Iran, where an assimilation policy is pursued against the Turks. The call of the blood speaks in them.
The reason for the greater vulnerability and weaker stability of the Turkic factor in the Republic of Azerbaijan is that Northern Azerbaijan has always had a greater ethnic diversity of population than South Azerbaijan. This always created problems for the Turks of Shirvan and Aran, who were surrounded from all sides by various Caucasian-speaking mountain peoples—remnants of Caucasian Albania, as well as by ethnic groups of the Iranian group—Tats, Kurds, Talysh, etc. Therefore, the ideology of “Azerbaijanism” took shape and found fertile ground in the territory of Northern Azerbaijan, where the Turkic ethnic identity was weaker, and the opponents of Turkism could always rely on the numerous non-Turkic components of the Northern Azerbaijani community. Only the integration of Northern Azerbaijan with a more Turkic, Qizilbash Southern Azerbaijan could dilute non-Turkic elements within the nation and contribute to the revival of the Turkic spirit, traditions and mindset, i.e., reanimate the Turkic Qizilbash ethnos, which has practically disappeared from Northern Azerbaijan.
In the existing reality, however, Azerbaijani universalism is the only possible mix that provides solidity and stability to such a complex and multicomponent formation as the Azerbaijani people. Someone may like this universalism, some may not. Someone might say that having many faces and facets is the same as having none, it is inauthenticity. Some, on the contrary, will say that diversity is our wealth and advantage over other peoples, isolated in their shells. But the truth is that there is no alternative to syncretic universalism in Azerbaijan today. No other doctrine or concept takes root here. The Azerbaijani society itself rejects it instinctively. We have tried repeatedly to squeeze Azerbaijan into narrower and clearer confines, and we see the results. For example, Turkism could become an alternative to universalism, giving ethnic substance to the Azerbaijani phenomenon, but the ethnically heterogeneous population and the cosmopolitan elite rejected it.
All attempts to introduce some kind of paradigm, to clearly define and concretize the Azerbaijani phenomenon failed. As a result, the very same Azerbaijani universalism set in. Apparently, this is not so much our choice as our destiny. By the way, the phenomenon of Azerbaijani universalism fits well into the Western project of globalization. This partly brings Azerbaijan closer to modern European countries, with which, under favorable circumstances, it will be able to gradually align and integrate.
Prof. Farid Alekberli