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Azerbaijan – an Islamic eye-opener

Among many atheists there is a trend to rank Islam as representing the worst of religious excesses (conversely, Eastern religions tend to get off the lightest, at least among Western atheists). The rationale for this ranking appears rather weak. Clearly, it is very easy to spot abuses of religious power among the Islamic world, but the same can be said of the Christian world. Yes, there are Islamic terrorists, but equally there are many Christian terrorists - terrorism in Northern Ireland (more than 2000 killed), the Ku Klux Klan (a hundred years of terrorism), anti-abortionist terrorists in the US (on average 10 attempted bombings/arsons per year and five murders/assaults every year) and so forth. Historical acts of Christian violence would probably well and truly exceed that of Islamic violence - Crusades, witch burnings and the Spanish Inquisition are just the beginning.

So why does Christianity tend to get let off relatively lightly by many atheists? I think there are two major reasons. The first is that anyone receiving media in the Western world is exposed to what I'll call "the black man" effect. If someone is murdered by a black man, the media will constantly talk about the murder by "a black man", while if someone is murdered by a white man, the media will just talk about the murder by "a man". Likewise the reporting of any attempted bombing by an Islamic man will constantly mention his religion, while an attempted bombing by a Christian man will rarely ever mention his religious identity, even when clearly linked to motivation (such as abortion clinic bombings). The second reason, perhaps, is observer bias. It is all too easy for an atheist living in a post-Christian country to look at the Islamic nations that are most frequently in the press (Iraq and Afghanistan) and say - "sure, religion is causing problems here, but look at what Islam is doing to girls in Afghanistan!" Certainly Islam has much to answer for in Afghanistan, and other countries, but using modern western Europe as the control Christian country is a farce: firstly, the control countries are largely post-Christian with a wall between Church and State; secondly the past record of these countries, when controlled by the Christian church, was appalling (even today, child rape stories are constantly leaking out of the Church); and thirdly the comparison does not take into account development status, stability and other (non-religious) factors that can influence the outcome. Religious abuses show much greater parity at the regional level - Islamic terrorism in Sudan competes with the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda (a major Christian terrorist organisation complete with child soldiers, massacres, mutilation, torture and rape) for the biggest death toll, genital mutilation of girls is practiced by Christians and Muslims across North Africa with equal frequency, Christian Ghana and Islamic Guinea both agree on horrific prison sentences for homosexuality, and so forth.

The other side of the argument is demonstrated by countries like Turkey and Azerbaijan. Turkey is often touted as the modern model of an Islamic country, with highly religious people but a staunchly secular state. To me this makes Turkey analogous to the US, while Azerbaijan is a better example of the modern European model. Both Turkey and Azerbaijan are secular states with largely Islamic populations, but unlike Turkey (which is highly religious), Azerbaijan must be the closest example we have of a post-Islamic state. 95% of the population is Muslim, yet this Islamic population guarantees religious freedom under article 48 of its Constitution and a recent Gallup Poll showed Azerbaijan to be one of the most irreligious countries in the world, with 50% of the population ranking religion as having "little or no importance in their life". Azerbaijan is an eye-opener because it is a country full of people who self-identify as Muslims, but don't let it get in the way of their life - just as western Europe is full of people who self-identify as Christians but don't let it dictate "morality". And this makes a major difference - Azerbaijan was the first democratic secular republic in the Muslim world, and granted women equal voting rights to men in 1918 - before the United Kingdom or the United States. In our week in Azerbaijan I only saw a bare handful of women wearing a headscarf and no men with the traditional Islamic beard. Local restaurants all served alcohol and pig-products, and couples strolling along the boulevard hand-in-hand or sitting down and kissing were commonplace. Azerbaijan is less religious and less conservative than neighbouring Armenia or Georgia, both Christian with a shared history. Perhaps the biggest eye-opener is that Azerbaijan is not exotic. It is just a normal country full of normal people doing normal things, an image I wish more people would see before making religious comparisons.

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