Friday, March 31, 2006

Monday, March 27, 2006

The news from Binagadi - and elsewhere

Three days ago the National Security Ministry announced that it has uncovered evidence that al Qaeda is recruiting young women in Azerbaijan for terrorist operations. The group is focusing its efforts on “believers from low-income families, religious students or the unemployed aged between 20 and 25,” which is a demographic that captures most women between 20 and 25. Why women? I really need to talk to the National Security Ministry to find out, although it does sound like a clever recruiting tactic.

In other news, Azerbaijan has the distinction as of last week of being an epicenter of human deaths from H5N1 bird flu, with a confirmed total of five fatalities – all from one village. A teenager is in hospital here in Baku with bird flu as well, although so far, she is hanging on. The five deaths were all young people in their teens and early twenties. And a dog has actually died here from bird flu! Recent articles in Nature and Science explain that the bird flu doesn’t pass from human to human due to the outer layer (I assume this is the protein sheath) having a structure that attaches itself to cells deep in the human respiratory tract. Thus, sneezing or coughing is usually not sufficient to dislodge the infected cells and pass them on to other humans.

When the virus mutates, then we will be in trouble, quite possibly big trouble.

Maybe it’s not such a good idea to be living in Azerbaijan right now.

Speaking of which, another news report here says that a “radioactive container” was discovered in the Binagadi district of Baku on Friday. The radioactivity is “600 times the norm,” according to the report.

No wonder that I’ve been feeling a bit off-form since eating that chicken kabob at the “Binagadi CafĂ©.”

Finally, Azerbaijan and Iran are having a public spat, ostensibly having to do with the ethnicity of a revered poet. Actually, it’s about geopolitics. The “World Congress of Azerbaijanis” was held here last week, during which one of the speakers advocated the “liberation” of northern Iran, where most of the world’s ethnic Azeris live (the area of northern Iran and current Azerbaijan being the historical area where Azeris have lived for hundreds of years).

This was bad enough, but the Iranians replied with a diplomatic note of protest, with the ambassador alleging late last week that Nizami (the poet referred to above) was Persian, not Azeri. That, in turn, sparked a huge row between the two fraternal, Shi’ite countries which has still not quite died down, despite a cordial reply from the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry. The Iranian ambassador was really quite insistent about Nizami’s bloodline and the newspapers here are indignant, to put it mildly.

Can you imagine the outcry from America if the Canadian ambassador alleged that Wallace Stevens was from Halifax?!

And (as though anyone cares or is reading this), I decided not to publish that story on the "Jesus and Mary" article in the newspaper here. Better to let it lie...

Monday, March 20, 2006

The swindler, the prostitute, and the imam

It all began on or about Ashura, which is the Sh’ite holy day commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali. The imagery of Ashura is a rather unnerving to us Westerners, with its hordes of chanting believers flagellating themselves with chains, sometimes until the fleshy parts of the back and shoulders turn into ribbons of blood.

Thankfully, Azerbaijan is largely free of this sort of zealotry. But this year, Ashura came at precisely the wrong moment, dovetailing with the zenith of the Danish cartoon controversy. On February 11th, a small cell of Ashura observers ran down the Targova here in Baku, frightening even Azeris who just wanted to shop, thank you.

But amidst all the embassy-burning in places such as Pakistan, something happened here in little ol’ Azerbaijan which somehow flew under the West’s radar. And today, after researching this for four weeks in my usual miss-the-deadline fashion, I am mulling over whether to shop the story out to any newspapers or magazines (Security Watch isn’t gonna buy it) or just write it off as a waste of time and money.

What happened is this: a small-circulation local tabloid (I mean that in the literal sense rather than in the pop-culture sense, i.e. it’s a small, one-section newspaper instead of a broadsheet) called Yeni Xeber published an article on February 11 entitled “The Wild West’s Attack on the East.”

This article was, in a word, nuts. In the piece, the author refers to Jesus Christ as a “swindler” and to Mary as “a prostitute.” Wait, it gets better (worse): the war between Christendom and Islam began with Princess Diana lying in the bed of a Muslim man (Dodi Fayed). And you Western men? Your impotence is such that – well, never mind. The entire harangue is pasted below.

Every Azeri friend who has seen it is deeply embarrassed, ashamed. And that is the nub of my problem: do I submit an article of my own detailing the background and the recent court appearance of the editor? (The court appearance was, believe me, an anti-climax. He was sued for libel by a government official in a court action that did not even mention the Jesus and Mary article.)

If I submit the piece and it gets printed, it would certainly not excite even a tiny fraction of the anger that the Danish cartoons caused. Which has been my point all along in talking about this issue with my more pious Azeri friends. I mean, what can you do but laugh out loud (as I did as well as two American lawyers to whom I showed the newspaper) when this infantile “journalist” declares that every foreign man’s wife in Baku “has tasted at least 10-12 Azeri men.”

The sexual subtext is everywhere, and only serves to make what would have been merely a rabid diatribe into something incredibly funny – and sad.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that I don’t want stupid people in the West to think that this sort of tantrum – which is truly vicious at times – is at all indicative of what people think here in Azerbaijan.

Besides, as an Imam lectured to me today, this story is old news. At least it is here. He wouldn’t comment for me on it, even though he also wanted to sue the editor of the paper last month. For the Imam, “this affair is over…nothing good can come of bringing it up again.”

He has a point.

(He has a point even though today he falsely accused me of misquoting him in a previous article in a way that “created trouble for us” at his religious organization. Excuse me, Imam: I checked my transcripts this evening. You were not misquoted. If you want to stay out of trouble with the government, then maybe you shouldn’t say things like, ‘they are supporting Wahaabism.’)

At any rate, he may be right about not revisiting all this nonsense.

But then, he may be wrong. The East needs to see that when an article in an obscure Azerbaijani paper maligns Jesus and Mary in a far worse manner than what the Danish paper did to Muhammad, the reaction in the West is – well, we don’t know yet, do we? That is because the West hasn’t picked up this story.

My guess is that the reaction will be 1) a shrug of the shoulders, because most people don’t read papers and the rest won’t give a damn, or 2) indignation or mild anger from some quarters, or 3) laughter. Mostly 1 and 3, I would think.

People in the West need to see that this sort of thing is possible in a Muslim society, but mostly they need to understand that virtually the entire country felt distress when the article was published. And Muslims need to understand that cultural context is everything. That is because some people here seem to think that if a Muslim paper ever printed insulting cartoons about Jesus, an explosive reaction would occur just as it did in Islamic societies. And of course, that is absurd. And this mistaken assumption says so much about the gulf that separates a truly secular, liberal West from Muslim states that did not experience a Thirty Years’ War, did not enjoy the fruits of an Enlightenment and have not come to similar conclusions about the efficacy of religion intruding on civil society. That’s because for them it isn’t an intrusion at all – religion is society, and even in a secular Muslim state such as Azerbaijan, the whole issue of how societies should be run and what the fundamental premises should be are less settled than you might think.

The Soviet era was for the most part an artificial interregnum for the Muslim republics in the USSR, stifling their cultural development but at the same time imposing an overlay of secular order, with Moscow as the Bolshevik Mecca – actually, Rome is a better analogy, for there has never been a Muslim pope.

OK, that brings us back to my struggle – to submit a piece or let it go.

So what follows for your perusal is the Yeni Xeber article, translated into English by my interpreter and cleaned up by me…

The Wild West’s Attack on the East by Natiq Muxtarli

The publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish “Jyllands-Posten” newspaper deservedly was the reason for the Muslim world’s discontent. But it is incorrect to perceive this only as humiliation by one newspaper against the Prophet of Islam, Allah’s messenger. It is the component of a big attack, administered from one source. It is no coincidence that, while Muslims were peacefully objecting to the newspaper cartoons, successors of the swindler Christ explained that they and their colleagues were uniting to republish these cartoons. It may be said that the cartoons were seen all over the Christian world. A question should be asked: who has done anything to your colleagues that you decided to unite with them? Supposedly, your solidarity was linked to cartoons’ publishing. Heads of all European states dishonorably asked Muslims to respect freedom of speech. They didn’t even blame anyone for outraging the respected portrait of the Prophet Muhammad. America openly passed by this incident. A speaker from the White House stated that there were no such cartoons published in the USA, but if they were published, the White House would not object. It was an open call for newspapers to insult the Prophet Muhammad. Hence, all these were components of the plan were mapped out beforehand. It is an attack of savage Christians against Muslims. It can also be called a second Crusade.

It is not a secret that nowadays sensible people increasingly are coming to Islam. Europe and America cannot deny this. In fact, mighty Allah saw that the swindler Jesus, the son of the prostitute Mary, was not able to lead people to wisdom. He sent his last messenger to the Earth and by this he showed that the only way of achieving this wisdom is through Islam. But a number of psychopathic heads of states in the Christian world were from time to time under the influence of that god. They conducted military and nonmilitary struggles against Islam. The foundation of the attack that began today was laid when American troops entered Afghanistan. This attack started when bombing and outraging of Islamic holy places in Iraq occurred. Those who were not able to be husbands to their spouses saw the sin in Islam. What was Prophet Muhammad’s sin when women from Bush’s, Chirac’s and Blair’s countries come into ecstasy when they see Muslim men? Maybe this war broke out when British Princess Diana lay in the bed of a Muslim man. They couldn’t come to terms with the princess’s betrayal. They saw the sin in Islam. And that is the reason why they killed both of them in a terrorist act. Those who cause terror on a governmental level blame Islam for terror. It is proper to discover Princess Diana’s betrayal not in Islam, but in the character of the prostitute Mary. Anyway, those who pray to Jesus crucify him today. The most merciless Muslim couldn’t invent a more irrational torture than crucifixion. Those who supposed themselves to be civil were engaging in such brutal acts periodically. One can expect any brutality from those who crucify their prophets. Don’t doubt that they are savages inside. I saw that Englishmen are savages after watching their movies. I always doubted that these madmen could be civilized when I saw what they have done to local population of America, Scotland and Ireland. This was the madness of the English that made the Irish become terrorists. Even now, when the national anthem of England is played at a football match, the Scottish simultaneously whistle. Nations forget nothing. This madness will never disappear. Today also, one can witness the brutality of Jesus’s successors. These fools act with condescension to our state and people. They export our oil, they mock us. They cannot show respect for a man. Because respect for a man is distant from Christianity. It can be found only in Islam. Foreigners’ wives living in Baku with pleasure consort with our men. Their “men” hate us because each one’s wife has tasted at least 10-12 Azeri men and has thus understood what a real man’s temperament is like.

Europe today is becoming rapidly brutalized. It is ordinary there now if a pupil takes a gun and shoots his classmates, teachers and parents. This is not the “clash of civilizations” mentioned by American scholar Samuel Huntington. It is the fight of the West with the civilized East. Today the West is rapidly advancing in years, but the East becomes younger. Old age will lead to impotence. And then, willingly or unwillingly, they will submit to the East. Yet there are Bush, Tony and Jacques with blood on their teeth who don’t understand this, or if they do understand, they do not accept it. They still keep fighting. Against Allah’s will. No matter how many times they brand us as terrorists, the foundation of faith moves rapidly toward Mohammed. This movement is for salvation, for returning to humanity. Sooner or later, the world will be totally converted to Islam, and will become beautiful and filled with light. It is impossible to possess this beauty and light by submitting to the prostitute Mary’s swindler son Jesus. Fools, you know perfectly that this beauty was sent to the universe in the form of Muhammad. You know this, but your characteristics of impotence and prostitution don’t allow you to admit this. But you will. Truth is with us. Allah is almighty!

PS: Christians who don’t agree with what is written here – let them accept this as an example of freedom of speech! Let them accept this as you accepted the outrage against the Prophet Muhammad.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

"Hell Killers"

Walking south along Rasul Raza Street on Thursday afternoon on my way home from the Foreign Ministry, I snapped some urbanscapes with a cheap but excellent Kodak digital camera - including this shot...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Nagorno-Karabakh: some thoughts on war and the absence of war

A political post, for once…

My article for Security Watch on the failed Azerbaijan-Armenia peace talks in France appears here

The Nargorno-Karabakh war (1992-94) was a vicious, brutal affair, if you can somehow prioritize the violence and brutality of wars – some being not so bad as wars go, others because of the methods used or the savagery aroused seeming to touch something visceral in us that we would rather not confront, at least in peacetime.

That’s the insidious danger of war, I think: the feelings of group-identity and tribal affiliation are an ingrained part of being human, and even if we have lived alongside another tribe for eons, we so often welcome the opportunity of shedding the garments of civilization for the delirious intoxication of killing. What triggers this lust for violence is a deeply rooted genetic marker - as deeply rooted as our need for cooperation, one should hasten to add.

The state is not the primary driving force here, but one that structures and rationalizes ethnic or tribal identity: the State as Leviathan, the State as the grand superstructure that brings “meaning” to our brutality as well as our collective notions of truth and virtue and justice.

As Randall Jarrell said in his most famous poem:

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

And Wilfred Gibson in his poem "Back":

They ask me where I've been,
And what I've done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn't I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands...
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name.

I’d very much like to know if the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) war produced a poetic tradition in either country. Azerbaijan is a society that, like many Muslim countries, honors its poets. I’ll have to find out and post what I discover in the near future. I’d like to think that the poetry is as reflective and compassionate as that found in Britain or Germany or America after the two world wars. But I’m going to guess that it’s not.

The lingering, open wound from the NK war is the one topic that binds Azeris, at least binding them in a kind of mournful retribution pact – a retribution that will almost certainly not come in the next decade, if ever. Both countries are mired in history and unlike Saul Bellow’s “woman of bittah-ness,” there is no willingness to take the blow without ultimate revenge.

The latest news here on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process is that it is dead. At least, that seems to be what President Aliyev is saying. Actually, he said yesterday that the talks with Armenia are at “a dead end.” The phrase “dead end” when applied to the talks (or applied to anything else, for that matter) has a finality about it: dead end = dead. “Dead end” doesn’t mean “in a state of suspended animation.” It means “no way out,” “dead,” i.e. not living, devoid of life, moribund, expired…


As I told a source in the Azerbaijani government recently, I don’t pretend to know what the true nature of the government’s strategy is, but I think there are very few possibilities: 1) they are stalling for time, 2) their strategy has changed drastically, or 3) their strategy was mis-read all along.

Possibility 1 suggests that the president believes that the re-acquisition of NK is impossible and that he will grudgingly accept a plebiscite somewhere down the road. This has been the judgment of the international community for some time, and I am beginning to think that this was a fundamentally flawed interpretation.

Thus, possibility 3 means that the “Prague Process” – at least as understood by the Azerbaijanis – may simply have been a way to wrest control from Armenia of the seven occupied regions surrounding NK in the short term while making zero commitments regarding the future status of NK proper.

So the Azerbaijani understanding was: Prague Process = acquisition of 7 regions + major gains now, no agreement to future plebiscite.

The Armenian understanding was the reverse: Prague Process = 5 of 7 regions given back to Azerbaijan + status quo for NK now, with commitment to plebiscite.

If both of the above are true, then for at least a year and a half, certain think tanks as well as the OSCE Minsk Group may have been hearing what they wanted to hear. So when the two presidents agreed to meet at Rambouillet on 10 February, there was a sense of misplaced optimism fueled by the OSCE, which then quickly crashed in flames at the negotiating table.

And here in Baku, a silly story about the Armenian president getting orders from Moscow in the men’s room explains everything.

# 2 above is also plausible, especially given recent discussions in Baku that “maybe we ought to at least talk about the implications of this referendum idea.” But if that was a serious option, it is either now completely off the table or it is being re-packaged for presentation at a later date.

The next few months are critical. It should be obvious by the autumn, let’s say, whether the plebiscite really is dead (along with the Prague Process) or whether President Aliyev intends to revive it. If so, look for a softening in the anti-Armenian rhetoric and an emphasis on “dialogue.”

You can’t make peace easily with a people you’ve been demonizing for over 14 years. If indeed you have already come to terms with the notion that you’re never going to get NK back, then perhaps the best you can do is take what you can get.

One cannot spend any time in Baku without being overwhelmed by the degree to which the Armenian people have become “the other” – an overused expression in political and social analysis, perhaps, but in this case apropos. The hatred for Armenia is deeply ingrained in Azeris, who learn from an early age about Armenia’s treachery, Armenia’s “genocide” against the town of Khojaly (where a massacre did take place), Armenia’s “invented” genocide at the hands of Turkey and its Black Sea to Caspian grand strategy. You can’t turn around one day and suddenly announce to your people that you have reached a painful compromise with Armenia – unless you take years to prepare them for such a day.

The situation is comparatively easy for Armenians, since they won the war. They don’t need to paint the Azeris as “evil” or as the head of the Karabakh Liberation Organization put it to me last week while referring to Armenia, “one of the worst nations of the world.” This man, Akif Nagi, also has deep contempt for the Russians – a common view here, at least with respect to NK.

What about the Russians? This brings us to possibility #4.

Russia, like any great power, expects something in return for being the “guarantor” (as they are fond of saying) of any future peace settlement.

And some people here suggest that the key to any settlement lies with Russia. Since the only “key” that is acceptable to Azerbaijan must include an eventual return of NK that includes some kind of sovereignty, then the Russians will have to lean hard on their regional ally and client state Armenia. Its president, Robert Kocharian, won’t like that one bit, so he will have to be persuaded. Or cajoled, or assured, or threatened.

Why would Russia do such a thing? Because they will get something in return from Azerbaijan – seen as America’s ally if not its client state. Russia will enjoy renewed power and prestige, perhaps economic concessions from Azerbaijan and most unsettling of all for the US, deeper military ties that will weaken America’s relationship with Azerbaijan as well as its overall presence on Russia’s southern flank. And then America’s only staunch ally in the Caucasus will be Georgia: weak, faltering, torn by at least two of its own separatist movements, both of which are supported by…Russia.

That’s a huge payoff for the Russians as well as for Azerbaijan. President Aliyev will be hailed as a national savior. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s latest Tsar, will be seen as a great statesman. And the US will be reduced to the role of an onlooker.

I’m not saying all this will happen. But it’s an intriguing possibility. We shall see…