Two majority Shia Nations and the Holocaust: How Azerbaijan differs from Iran

Two states border one another and both are Muslim, but their attitude to the Holocaust could hardly be more opposed. Op-ed.

Rachel Avraham‏ ,

Netanyahu meeting Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev in Baku
Netanyahu meeting Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev in Baku
Haim Zach/GPO

January 27, International Holocaust Memorial Day, is the day that the UN General Assembly designated to commemorate and remember the Holocaust, the years when six million Jews were brutally massacred in the worst genocide known throughout human history.

January 27 marks the day that the Nazi death camps were liberated from the Nazi oppression and where the practice of transforming Jewish people into dust ended abruptly.

For the Azerbaijani nation, this day has special significance and importance, in contrast to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In an exclusive interview, Azerbaijani Rabbi Zamir Isayev proclaimed: “Every year except this year because of the corona, the Azerbaijani government holds a number of events commemorating the Holocaust. The Baku Multiculturalism Center also does events commemorating the Holocaust and Khojaly. They invite the leaders of the Jewish communities. In the TV channels, you can see information about the Holocaust on this day. We also show films on the Holocaust. You can find in the schoolbook’s information on the Holocaust and on government websites.”

“You can see in schoolbooks lessons about the Holocaust in all schools, not just Jewish schools,” he added. “In all the schools, even in small villages, they teach who are the Jews and what the Nazis did to the Jewish people. It is amazing for a Muslim country.”

When it was noted that both Azerbaijan and Iran are majority Shia nations that border each other, yet Azerbaijan relates to the Holocaust very differently from Iran, the respected rabbi noted: “It is part of the Azerbaijani tradition to respect the history of other nations. The Azerbaijani people also feel that it is important given the tragedy that happened in Khojaly. Azerbaijanis tell us all of the time that they gained sympathy for what the Jewish people suffered during the Holocaust after what happened in Khojaly.”

In a book titled Khojaly: A Crime Against Humanity, Rabbi Israel Barouk wrote: “The Holocaust is one of the most horrific events in all recorded history and serves as a powerful education tool. It is almost impossible to imagine this world without the exhaustive and intensive recognition of the Holocaust. The truth about this horrendous crime and the murder of millions of innocent people is engrained in the Western mind from childhood: shared through education, Hollywood, and curated evidence to fill dozens of museums across the globe and for some of us still, through our parents and grandparents. Many have heard or watched the testimony of survivors.”

“Sadly, revisionists and deniers exist even today despite the evidence and unparalleled facts, but those individuals that deny or revise facts about the Holocaust exist mostly on the fringes, if not the absolute shadows of society,” Rabbi Barouk added. He stressed in his book that it was the Holocaust which taught him to write about the lesser known atrocities, such as the Khojaly massacre in 1992, where 613 Azerbaijanis were murdered within one day: “The truth requires sharing, about what happened in Khojaly and the brutalities committed across the Nagorno-Karabakh region.”

Rabbi Isayev noted that the Azerbaijani Jewish community has also commemorated the Khojaly massacre. At the same time, Israeli President Reuben Rivlin noted, “On this day, we must ask ourselves honestly, is our struggle, the struggle of this assembly against genocide, effective enough? Was it effective enough in Bosnia? Was it effective enough in preventing killing in Khojaly?”

Rabbi Isayev stressed that the Azerbaijani people remember how both the Azerbaijani Jewish community and the State of Israel commemorate the Khojaly massacre, so they relate to International Holocaust Memorial Day as an official holiday in the Azerbaijani state, even though Azerbaijan is 90% Muslim and only 30,000 Jews live in Azerbaijan today.

In contrast, MEMRI reported that last September that Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's representative in the Khorasan Razavi province, blamed the Jewish people for the Beirut Port explosion that Hezbollah likely caused by accident, yet angrily condemned Europe for permitting the mockery of the Prophet Muhammed while people who discuss or investigate the "false and mythical" Holocaust are condemned and executed. Last October, Iran launched its third Holocaust Denial Cartoon Contest. According to the Jerusalem Post, Iran’s official media outlet the Fars News Agency called the Holocaust “questionable” last November yet accused the Jewish people of perpetrating a holocaust over 1,000 years ago in Yemen.

Interestingly, while the Islamic Republic of Iran denies the Holocaust, they perpetrated a grave crime against humanity against members of the Bahai faith. In Iran, it is illegal to be a member of the Bahai faith. According to the Bahai International Community, “Bahais, who are Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, are routinely arrested, detained and imprisoned. They are barred from holding government jobs, and their jobs and other enterprises are routinely closed or discriminated against at all levels. Young Bahais are prevented from attending university and those volunteers Bahai educated who have sought to fill the gap have been arrested and imprisoned. This systematic persecution, which has been ongoing since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, has been further inflamed by a campaign to incite hatred against Bahais in the official news media.”

In contrast, Azerbaijan treats members of the Bahai faith with dignity and respect, as multiculturalism and religious pluralism is official state policy in Azerbaijan. In a recent webinar on Pluralism in Azerbaijan that was conducted by Republic Underground, Agil Shironov, the rector of the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology, explained why Azerbaijan relates differently to the Bahais, the Jews and other religious minorities than Iran:

“The difference is not their faith but their attitude towards politics. The majority of Azerbaijani Shias support a secular state. Azerbaijani Muslims are also tolerant towards each other because of the tradition of Sufism. Most of Azerbaijan is Sufi. In the Sufi tradition, what is important is to respect what is created. This is the main road to respect all people and all creation for the sake of God.”

Rachel Avraham is a political analyst working at the Safadi Center for International Diplomacy, Research, Public Relations and Human Rights. She is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media.”