Sunday, December 24, 2006

Iran, Azerbaijan and the Tagi Affair

Today's New York Times has a very good article discussing the Rafiq Tagi affair. In early November, Tagi wrote a newspaper article in his native Azerbaijan, arguing that Islam has hindered his country's development. The Times summarizes the ensuing controversy as follows:

The furor after its publication echoes the case of the Danish cartoons published in 2005 that were seen as mocking Islam, generating protests from Gaza to Pakistan. An Iranian cleric demanded the death of the two authors, and denunciations from village imams and other religious conservatives in Azerbaijan have sent tremors through the Azeri government and the secular elite of this Shiite nation.

“I am for freedom of speech but not the freedom to insult,” said Hajji Ilgar, an imam at Baku’s Jama Old City mosque who is often critical of the government of Azerbaijan’s secular president, Ilham Aliyev. “The only solution is to take this to the courts.”

The article puts the Tagi affair into its broader context by discussing how Iran has actively incited the controversy in order to foster the spread of radical Islamism in Azerbaijan, and the efforts of Azeri intellectuals to defend free expression in response:

A group of 40 leading public intellectuals has released an open letter calling for Iran to stop encouraging religious extremists in Azerbaijan and for the Iranian cleric, Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani, to rescind his fatwa, or religious decree, against the authors.

Sadly, the ability of Iranian and Azeri Islamists to create a controversy over Tagi's article shows the extent to which their efforts are succeeding:

Elchin Shikhlinsky, the editor of Zerkalo, or The Mirror, one of the largest Baku dailies, said that the furor over the recent article was “crazy, and if such an article had been published a couple of years ago there would have been no reaction to it.”

“But,” he said, “step by step, day by day, people are becoming more religious. Iran is spending a lot of money along the border to produce these kinds of fanatics.”

Intellectual freedom in Azerbaijan is already under threat from that country's current regime. Iran's campaign to spread radical Islamism and impose censorship by death threat imperils it even further.


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