EUROVISION SONG CONTEST PRESENTS NEW CHALLENGE IN IRAN-AZERBAIJAN RELATIONSHIP
On May 22-26, 2012, the Eurovision song contest will be held in Baku, following Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2011 contest. Suggestions by gay rights activists that a gay pride parade will be held in Baku during the contest have disturbed the Islamic government of Iran. Over the last weeks, several Friday prayer preachers, official Iranian broadcasts and conservative newspapers have reflected the objections of the Iranian government, stating that the competition is “immoral” and “anti Islamic.” Iran’s present behavior stands in stark contrast to its indifference toward the participation of Muslim countries in previous Eurovision song contests. Also, gay pride parades have been organized in Turkey since 2003 without Iranian objections.
BACKGROUND: Azerbaijan joined the Eurovision Song Contest in 2008 and took third place after Iceland in 2009. After winning the 2011 Eurovision in Germany, it became the host of the 2012 contest. One part of the Eurovision contest is the gay pride parade, a celebration/ demonstration for legal rights such as same-sex marriage and countering anti–LGBT violence around the world. Although Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, its parliament decriminalized homosexual acts between male adults in 2000.
In January 2012, an official website about global gay nightlife, Nighttours, suggested that a gay pride parade should be organized in Baku during the lead-up to Eurovision, as was the case during the previous contest in Düsseldorf. The website removed its suggestion after a few days, but Iranian officials and some Azerbaijani websites voiced heavy criticism against the Azerbaijani government.
Bidari-e-Islami, a news Agency in Azerbaijan, reported that most people in Azerbaijan are not satisfied with Eurovision being held in Baku. Some religious people who are protesting the Eurovision contest have been arrested and accused of crimes such as drug abuse and possession of weapons. Islam Times published an analytic article about the Eurovision and gay pride parade in Baku. The paper stated that the victory of Azerbaijan in the 2011 contest was a conspiracy planned by Israel, which supposedly forced Azerbaijan to host of the 2012 contest and aims to separate Azerbaijan from the Islamic world. Signs that the government of Azerbaijan complies include, according to the paper, the destruction of mosques and bans of headscarves in schools. These websites and news agencies claim that they are Azerbaijani and are located in Azerbaijan, but have published all news and analysis in the Persian language.
The Islamic government of Iran has demonstrated its opposition to Eurovision and the supposed gay pride parade in various ways. First, it prohibited Iranians from buying Eurovision tickets through a filtering system and blocked the Eurovision website. Second, the radical Ansar-Hizbullah group and Islamic associations of universities in Tabriz city, which are directly supported by the Supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sent an open letter to the Presidents of Azerbaijan and Iran, threatening to close the Azerbaijani consulate in Tabriz if the parade takes place. Ayatollah Mohsen Mojdahed Shabestari, preachers of the Friday prayers and representatives of Iran’s supreme leader in Tabriz, criticized the Azerbaijani government, stating that the majority of the Azerbaijani population is Shi’a Muslim and that the prospect of a gay pride parade in a Muslim country harms the community of Muslims.
On May 11, 2012, groups of Azerbaijani youth protested in front of the Iranian embassy in Baku in response to the Iranian government’s actions, chanting slogans against the Iranian leadership. Most of their slogans pointed to recent and older conflicts between Iran and Azerbaijan, including claims that Iran supports Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. They also accused Iran of planning terrorist attacks against U.S. and Israeli interests in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s government believes that Iran is attempting to undermine Azerbaijan’s secular political system by supporting radical Shia organizations and reinforce religious feelings in Azerbaijan.
IMPLICATIONS: Azerbaijan’s official secularism has allowed for the country’s participation, along with Turkey, in Eurovision contests. Azerbaijan has made significant investments in order to host the events, reaching US$ 59 million according to official figures. The Eurovision presents a political opportunity for Azerbaijan to market its culture internationally, and to improve its international image as a modern Islamic country. This is especially problematic for Iran in which an estimated 25 percent of the population is Azeri.
Iran’s Azeri community maintains close cultural and historical ties with Azerbaijan and are concentrated in Iran’s north and west, in provinces that border Azerbaijan. They also comprise a significant part of the population in Iran’s main provinces such as Tehran, Alborz and Khorasan. A large part of Iran’s Azeri population is supportive of Azeri secular nationalism, which conflicts with the Shia Muslim identity supported by the Iranian government, its stress on Muslim unity and claims that it bases its relations with Muslim neighbors on Islamic principles. This conflict was highlighted during the official visit of Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister, Safar Abiyev, to Iran in March 2012, when the Iranian side hanged Azerbaijan’s flag upside down. Thus, the green stripe that symbolizes Islam was placed on top and the blue that symbolizes the Turkic nation at the bottom.
Azerbaijani officials have responded to the Iranian protests by appealing to the common national identity of Iranian Azeris. For instance, the chairwoman of the Azeri-Turkish Women Union, Tanzila Rustamkhanli, commented on the Tabriz rally: “We would like our brothers from our native Tabriz city to hold a great rally on the day of the Khojaly tragedy, but not to join a rally against a cultural event.” A portion of the Azeri population in Iran has reacted positively to these statements. During a football match in Tabriz, football supporters shouted “Eurovision” several times. Some Iranian Azeri blogs and websites supported national integration between Azeris and called Ayatollah Mohsen Mojdahed Shabestari a traitor.
The Iranian government faces a legitimacy crisis especially after its tenth presidential election in 2009. The economic crisis, along with increasing poverty and unemployment, has increased public discontent in Iran. In this context, the increasingly confrontational relationship with Azerbaijan could potentially stir unrest among Iranian Azeris. In this situation, the New Azerbaijan Party has suggested to rename Azerbaijan “Northern Azerbaijan,” implying that Azeri provinces in Iran would be named “Southern Azerbaijan,” a notion used in Azerbaijani school textbooks. Moreover, President Ilham Aliyev has named himself the leader of Azeris across the world.
Given the widespread discontent among Iran’s Azeri community, Azerbaijan’s prospects for increasing its international prestige through arranging the Eurovision contest could have a significant effect on Azeri national movements Iran. The Iranian government views such prospects as a potential threat to Iran’s territorial integrity.
A second factor contributing to Iranian unease stems from a decrease in cultural relations between Iran and Azerbaijan. In 1996, the Azerbaijani parliament prohibited religious activities of foreign nationals in Azerbaijan. Most of the Iranian clergy was deported from Azerbaijan and Iranian schools in the country were closed. Azerbaijan is determined to limit Iranian cultural and religious activities in Azerbaijan. For instance, the Azerbaijani Parliament has reduced the activities of the Iranian cultural house, Iranian charities and the Institute of the Martyrs Foundation in Azerbaijan’s cities. In addition, Fars News Agency reported that Taghi Ahmadov, the chairman of Baku’s subway, has prohibited trade in religious items such as the Koran and other Islamic religious books in Baku’s subway stations.
CONCLUSIONS: Iran’s protests against the 2012 Eurovision song contest in Baku result from the limitation of Iranian religious activities in Azerbaijan. Iran is also concerned over the growth of ethnic nationalism among Iranian Azeri’s. Despite the religious and cultural activities of Iranian organizations in Azerbaijan, Iran’s Islamic government has failed to gain significant support in the country, including among the religious segments of Azerbaijan’s population. While Iran claims an obligation to support all Muslims movements, it lost both its domestic and international legitimacy in the eyes of most Azerbaijanis and other Shia Muslims after the suppression of protests in Tehran, Tabriz, Mashhad and other cities in 2009. Several prominent Shia scholars and Grand Ayatollahs such as Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri and Yousf Sanei issued a Fatwa stating that Iran’s government is neither Islamic nor a republic. A Fatwa is binding for Shia Muslims, and especially Azerbaijanis who have no Grand Ayatollah.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr.Raheleh Behzadi was a lector at the department of social science teacher training college in Iran. She studied Central Asia and the Caucasus in Panjab University of India from 2005 to 2011. She is currently an independent analyst based in Sweden.