Late last week, social media alerted me to a TIME article entitled, “Azerbaijan Is an Oasis of Tolerance in the Middle East“. If that title didn’t cause you to at least raise your eyebrows if not laugh out loud, you probably don’t know much about Azerbaijan. I have spent time in Caucasian country in question, and let me say this: if someone is calling it “an oasis of tolerance” they are either thick or being paid off by the rather large pro-Azerbaijan lobby.
Reading the article, I think the former may apply here. The essence of the entire piece is that “Jews get less hassle here than in other parts of the Middle East”. The problem with this concept is, Azerbaijan isn’t really part of the Middle East at all, despite being an almost entirely Muslim country, but rather part of the post-Soviet Second World. This is a place where religion was forbidden by the state for most of the 20th century, as opposed to shoved down everyone’s throat like in most Middle Eastern countries. To be fair to the author of the TIME piece, he does say that being a Jew is easier in Azerbaijan than in Sweden or America even, but that makes sense as well. Sweden and America are liberal democracies where people are free to get incensed about things the state has no concern over. In Azerbaijan, whatever the state is concerned about is the citizen’s concern de facto; given they don’t care about Judaism in the slightest, it makes sense that being a Jew in Azerbaijan might feel freer in some senses than it does in the US.
The reason this got me thinking though, was because the article is a good example of how cavalier about basic freedoms the entire collective consciousness of the West is becoming. The key bit of the entire article was its one throw to the fact that Azerbaijan isn’t all wine and roses:
“Azerbaijan is not a paradise any more than any country in an embattled world. As a new democracy emerging from the long Soviet shadow, Azerbaijan struggles with freedom of the press and human rights. The tensions of being bordered by Iran and Russia and Armenia, and trying to maintain a free and independent Muslim republic, should not be underestimated. The pressures in that part of the world are hardly weighted toward tolerance.”
So here we are presented with this idea that some countries just, well shucks, they have to crack down on thinkers, writers, journalists, you know, anyone who don’t agree with them, because they are “struggling” with “emerging from the long Soviet shadow”. Basically, what do you expect? At least they don’t hate the Jews, right?
Is anyone else as uncomfortable as I am with how many times we now see journalists defending a crack down on other journalists? Granted, David Wolpe, the author of the TIME piece, seems to be writing in his capacity as a rabbi, but he is also a journalist by trade. Azerbaijan ranks 162 out of 180 countries on the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom rankings, one above Bahrain, two above Saudi Arabia. From first hand experience I can tell you it is not somewhere you’d want to live and write something that crossed the ruling elite, the ones with true power in that country being able to fit comfortably within one room.
The scariest example to me of this trend is how many Guardian articles, of all outlets, I have seen in the last couple of years defending some pretty nasty regimes (although to be fair, the ratio on this has plummeted since Seamus Milne left to work for Corbyn). So this isn’t about one article, but rather a whole trope that seems to be becoming more prevalent. I work in Westminster, and I’m beginning to get tired of whole sections of it being blocked off to accommodate some tin pot dictator strolling through town on a state visit. When exactly did we become so cavalier about liberal democracy anyhow?