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Delivered at Queen's Park on Friday, November 26, 2010  

Dear Friends, Colleagues, Distinguished Guests,

First of all, I would like to express my appreciation to the Association of Progressive Muslims of Ontario and its leader, my dear friend, Mr. Mobeen Khaja for inviting me to speak at this festive event and for honouring me with the award.

I believe that the Association is carrying out important work to raise the profile of progressive voices of Islam. At the time of stereotypes and misunderstandings with regard to Islam, the members of the Association and like-minded people should double their efforts in countering Islamaphobia by means of education and through peace messages.

Dear Friends,

I am going, though, today to speak about the importance of ideology.  Reflection about so-called standoff between the West and Islam leads me to the examination of causes of mistrust and animosity between some people, including policy-makers, media representatives, and clerics in Western and Islamic countries.

The current struggle against terrorism and religious extremism in the Middle East and some other regions and countries has two dimensions – first, combating terrorists and their networks, which involves law-enforcement-type measures, and second, eradicating the roots of terrorism, involving political and social measures.   After 9/11, the international community focused on ways of strengthening legislatures, cutting off the financial resources of terrorists, and coordinating intelligence.  Now, more experts are speaking about the necessity of addressing the problems which are behind religious extremism.

Western countries have put their efforts into the first dimension. They argue that the roots of terrorism are not clear, and, at least, multiform and diverse. If terrorism is bred by poverty, conflict in the Middle East, and disturbances in Iraq and Afghanistan, then it is unlikely that in the near future Western powers will be able to curb the causes of terrorism.   Moreover, some Western experts reject the idea that conflicts in the Middle East are the major reasons of terrorism.  Policy makers, including high-level ones, point to Islamic fundamentalism as doctrine that is naturally backward and directed against democratic values. So, as predicted by Samuel Huntington, the clash of civilizations is inevitable.  Meanwhile, other groups of scholars and policy makers argue that there is no clash of civilizations, and that Islamic extremists are confined to a narrow goal of ousting Westerners from Muslim lands.           

The “War on Terror” is a diplomatic cliché.  It is almost equal to saying “the war against bombing” or “the fight against hostage-taking”.  Terrorism is a tool for certain extremist groups to achieve their various political goals.  Terrorism is a means of achieving political demands.  Despite the lack of an international legal definition of terrorism, in many countries’ national legislations, it is defined as the use of violence or intimidation against civilians and the public as a whole to coerce the government to accept political demands.  This type of violence has a long history.

In 1881 Rysakov and Grinevitsky, Russian revolutionaries and members of a revolutionary group called the Narodnaya Volya (People's Will), assassinated Csar Alexander the Second because of a strong belief that it was the only way to end monarchy in Russia.  The August 18, 2005 article in the Economist “For Jihadist, Read Anarchist” made in-depth parallels between the anarchist and jihadist movements. “Repression did little to stop anarchist violence.  But eventually the world moved on and the movement withered”, the Economist’s article highlights. This information is highly instructive in our present situation.  Current efforts to eradicate international terrorism only by means of law-enforcement measures without addressing political and social problems, in my opinion, are doomed to failure.

For a hundred years, communists, anarchists and other types of leftist radicals found fertile ground in recruiting followers by invoking injustice of the capitalist system.  It was not only poverty that drew people to the left.  This is also true for current extremists – people who committed 9/11 and other terrorist acts are not from poor countries.

Communism ideology was a response to the “wild” capitalism of the 19th century.  Until a certain point of time, the number of people sympathetic to communism were increasing. Why? Communism offered a solid ideology for fighting the capitalist camp.  The 20th century, inter alia, was a great struggle between the intellectual potential of communism and that of democracy.  Ideology did matter.

Having been born and educated in the Soviet Union, I easily recall what we had been told about the “capitalist bourgeois world” by communist propagandists.  The images of unemployed people, suppressed Afro-Americans, expelled native Americans, murdered Indians and Arabs in the suppression of national-liberation movements, the bombing of Hiroshima, burned Vietnamese villages, the Munich agreement between Western powers and Hitler, Franco, Pinochet, and apartheid in South Africa, and so on… These topics are still employed by some political groups and movements, including anti-globalists.

The forces of democracy employed different methods to counter communist propaganda.  Western countries elaborated and launched a serious campaign to penetrate the USSR and to win the hearts of the Soviet people.  And so they did.

There is still an acute debate about the main reason behind the collapse of the communist system.  Among ethnic, economic and other issues, certainly, the strengthened ideology of the West vs. weakening values of socialism played its distinctive role in putting an end to the Soviet system. During the Brezhnev era, the Soviet people lost their belief in the values of communism as they witnessed senescent corrupt leadership whose declared goals contradicted what they actually did.

It is necessary to understand the ideology of extremists and to counter it with one’s own in order to combat terrorism successfully.  Economic reasons, including poverty, are only partial explanations for the growing popularity of terrorist groups.

Paradoxically, a Marxist idea, asserting that all social problems are driven by economic reasons, is now more employed by Western policy makers to explain the root causes of terrorism and ethnic conflicts.  Economy plays a significant role but not an exhaustive one in the phenomenon of terrorism.

Let me illustrate it with an example from my personal experience.  Once, walking in Paris, I collided with a young man, perhaps an Arab from his appearance.  At the moment of contact, he managed to steal my wallet without my noticing.  Politely apologizing for running into me, in a friendly way he asked me where I was from, which was followed by a second question about my religion.   Having heard that I was Muslim, he pulled out my wallet from his pocket and returned it to me with the advice “Be careful” and the acclamation “Allah Akbar”.  An ordinary pocket thief chose to forego his economic profit for his much more precious faith.  If someone persuades him to give up pickpocketing, it will not be a police officer, but a successful preacher.

However, instead of persuading, we see more signs of intimidation.  Images of abuse in Abu-Graib can hardly cause sympathy about Western democracy and powers involved in peacekeeping activities in Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan.  We hear calls, sometimes from officials, for bombing Mecca, burning Koran, launching crusade.  On another front, we observe in Western democracies legislatures aimed at banning minarets, Islamic centers, certain traditional clothing, etc.  Such actions undermine the principle of democracy.  And after having assaulted democratic principles, these countries go for establishing peace and democracy abroad, in troubled regions of the world.  If you want to make other people emulate values you preach, you should yourself behave in the manner of values you preach.

Olivier Roy, French analyst of Islam, believes: “It is a mistake to think that the phenomen[on] of religious radicalism… are mere imports of the cultures and conflicts of the Middle East.   It is above all a consequence of the globalization”.   He believes that it is a clash between religious fundamentalists from Western countries and Islamic ones.

But, in their essence, Islam, Christianity, Judaism and other religions are based on the same core values which, among other tenets, prohibit the murder of human beings.  But in hands of radicals (and here I would like to underline – radicals from both the West and East)  religious slogans are turned into a deadly weapon.

The phenomenon of converts (North American and European Christians or atheists who became Islamic extremists) pinpoints the ideological ground of radical movements rather than economic ones.  Olivier Roy notes in this regard: Al-Qaida has an astonishing number of converts among its members, a fact which is recognized but has not received sufficient attention. The converts are rebels without a cause who, thirty years ago, would have joined the Red Army Faction (RAF) or the Red Brigades, but who now opt for the most successful movement on the anti-imperialist market.”

Canadian scholar Eric Margolis in his book “American Raj: Liberation or Domination” highlighted grievances of Muslims in many places of the world associated with imperialism.

The West, undoubtedly the champion of human rights and democracy, has much to offer – rule of law, justice, and equality, but failed to do in the context of the Middle East and other regions on many occasions.  Moreover, looking on powerful ethnic, religious, business and other type of lobbies influencing government’s policies in many Western countries, one cannot be disappointed by that model of modus operandi in the decision-making process.  My country itself faced such a problem with its relations with some Western countries.

I am not intending to blame for current problems the so-called Western countries only.  As my friend and colleague, H.E. Rafet Akgunay, Ambassador of Turkey in Canada noted in his recent article in Diplomat and International Canada: “Muslim polities must accept the primary responsibility to advance their societies politically, socially and economically… The task is twofold – one for Muslim societies, the other for the West”.

Dear Friends,

Some would argue that due to tragic memories and losses after 9/11, Madrid, London and other terrorist acts, it is hard to contain suspicion and negative senses among people who suffered from those who invoked a religion, namely Islam, for political struggle.  In this context, I would like to say a few words about my own country. 

My country was subjected to occupation and aggression by external forces.  The occupying forces erected a Christian cross on tanks rolling over houses, mosques and other buildings.  However, the people of Azerbaijan never associated the conflict and enemy with the Christian faith.  Washington Times wrote in 2008 ...demagogues would have used this illegal act of occupation to perpetuate hatred toward all Christians.  Yet, what one sees emanating from the leadership and people of Azerbaijan is patience, tolerance, and respect for Christians and the Christian faith.

Christians have a long history in Azerbaijan.  In 2002, the capital of Azerbaijan – Baku welcomed Pope John Paul II and paved the way for the construction of a Catholic church. In support of a  tiny community of Catholics – mainly expats from the US and UK working in Azerbaijan’s growing oil and gas sector, the people in Baku celebrated the arrival of an important Christian place of worship. 

Just recently, on November 3, 2010, public officials, representatives of Jewish community, and diplomats from different countries joined a groundbreaking ceremony of a new synagogue in the historic Jewish quarter of Baku.  The ceremony came a month after the grand opening of the Jewish Chabad Ohr Avner Educational Complex in Baku on October 4.

That does not mean that my country is free from problems.  However, co-existence and synergy among various religions is something which enjoys a long history in Azerbaijan. That means that we have to learn from each other and there is no place for complacency and arrogance.

Dear Friends,

I strongly believe in the power of persuasion, in other words in an ideology based on solid values.  Only through values we will be able to reach peace and mutual understanding.

The holy month of Ramadan has a strong message.  Through fasting you understand the situation of those who are deprived of food and necessary nutrition.  It is about compassion and understanding.  It is about harmony, words, values and actions.  So, in this way, many religious prophets led people to God and sublime morality.  Indeed, ideology matters.

Thank you for your attention.