On April 26 a major international conference, “The Role of Media in the Promotion of Tolerance and Understanding,” opened in Baku, Azerbaijan. The conference was held under the auspices of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) with several high-ranking guests such as the Secretary-General of IOC, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the director general of Morocco’s Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri, former president of Romania Ion Iliescu, and special OSCE Representative on the Freedom of Mass Media Miklos Haraszti.
The mixture of participants from both East and West indicated the Azerbaijani government’s desire to contribute to the dialogue among civilizations and to shape efforts to achieve cross-cultural peace and tolerance. The location for such a conference was ideal: situated at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, Azerbaijan can play an important role in developing peaceful relations among the countries jockeying for influence in the region, such as Iran, Iraq, the United States, and European Union members. The fact that Azerbaijan is a predominantly a Shia country, but with a secular and pro-Western government, helps to make Azerbaijan an honest mediator and broker.
As presiding chair of the OIC, Azerbaijan is eager to shape the organization’s agenda and strengthen the moderate trends within Islam. The unfriendly and antagonistic images of Islam in some parts of the West are regarded painfully in Azerbaijan, and the government of President Ilham Aliyev is keen to remedy the situation through its own efforts both within the country and as a member of OIC.
“Islam is not a religion of terror. It is a religion of peace and tolerance,” Aliyev told conference participants. Other government officials, including Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, spoke about the media’s role in developing tolerance and shaping the mood of the public toward other ethnic, religious, and racial groups.
The Azerbaijani model of a secular state combined with modern Islam can also serve as an example for the rest of the Islamic world, as the radical trends in the Middle East continue to rise and negatively impact the minds of younger Muslims. The practice of tolerance and co-existence toward other religious groups has long been present in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanis pride themselves on creating comfortable conditions for Jews, Catholics, Orthodox, and members of other religious groups to peacefully co-exist in the country. For that reason, the sharing of experience and best practices is an integral part of the conference. Conference participants are expected to travel to the various regions of Azerbaijan to have a better understanding of how religious and ethnic tolerance works in Azerbaijan.
The conference also addressed the thorny issues relating to the rights and responsibilities of the media both in Azerbaijan and abroad. Conference participants debated whether journalists have the right to print anything they want or whether they should exercise some responsibility and discretion, especially in the wake of such sensitive issues as the religious identity of nations. The Danish cartoon scandal of last year was cited as the best example of how journalists have crossed ethical boundaries and hurt the feelings of Muslims around the world. Similarly, the humiliating cartoons by an Iranian newspaper about the ethnic Azerbaijani population of Iran, which sparked mass rallies and protests in Iran in May 2006, was also mentioned in that regard.
Azerbaijan’s situation with its own media has experienced ups and downs, with the government accusing journalists of slanderous reporting and racketeering activities, and with the reporters blaming the government for exerting pressures over the media outlets in the country. This conference will certainly help to harmonize media-government relations in the country and create an understanding that both sectors can work together for the betterment of the country.
The topic of education was also an important part of the conference, with a separate panel dedicated to the issues of proper training both for the journalists and general public. UNESCO’s Mogens Schmidt, deputy assistant director-general for communication and information, spoke regarding education and universal values and stated that all the existing conflicts in the world must be resolved in a peaceful manner. “And education plays an important role in this issue.” Participants also discussed the issue of wearing headscarves in public schools and noted that the hijab should not be turned into a symbol of radical Islam around the world.
(Day.az, Echo, AzTV, ANS TV, Trend News Agency, April 26-27)