Can You Name the Muslim World’s First Secular Democracy?

Can You Name the Muslim World’s First Secular Democracy?

Why you should care

The brief but inclusive Azerbaijan Democratic Republic shows that innovation can come from where it’s least expected.

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Geo facts & figures

The exotic, cosmopolitan city buzzed with activity, its multicultural lifeblood driven in part by a recent oil boom and swept up in intellectual thought and political activism. Petro barons lounged in newly built mansions outside the Old City, where merchants traded in local wares, shopkeepers served mouthwatering culinary delights and residents shuffled through narrow alleys to and from centuries-old houses of worship.

Midcentury Tehran? Caracas in the 1970s? Try Baku during the waning days of World War I.

Though located on the southern fringes of the Russian Empire, the commercial and cultural outpost that now serves as the capital of Azerbaijan wasn’t as sleepy as one might expect for an isolated city on the shores of the Caspian Sea and sequestered behind the towering Caucasus Mountains. In fact, in the brief moment between the collapse of imperial Russia and the establishment of the Soviet Union, a unique set of circumstances here gave rise to something perhaps even more surprising: what local historians say was the Muslim world’s first functioning secular democracy.

If you thought Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Republic of Turkey — founded in 1923 — claimed that title, welcome to the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) of 1918–20.

[The Azerbaijan republic] was quite progressive, not only in regard to the new East but even to Europe.

Zaur Gasimov, research fellow, Orient-Institut Istanbul

Though short-lived, the ADR arose in a region of former empires, kingdoms and autocracies to set an impressive precedent. Embracing inclusive parliamentary politics, empowering women and ethnic minorities and promoting quality education, it not only laid the foundation for Azerbaijan but also carved out its own place in history. “Most important, it was a victory of the local secular intelligentsia over the old elite,” says Altay Goyushov, a professor of history at Baku State University.

Located at a strategic crossroads where the Persian, Turkic and European worlds met, the collection of khanates that came under Russian rule was inherently multiethnic and multiconfessional by the turn of the 20th century, populated by Sunnis, Shiites, Armenians, Russians, Poles and many others. Yet a core Azeri intelligentsia — graduates of Russian educational institutes who increasingly came to identify with European-style social democracy — was also crystallizing around the idea of a state governed by the sort of post-colonial institutions that were sprouting up across Europe. It provided a “logical conclusion,” Goyushov says, to the transformation of Azerbaijani society during the 19th century.

With help from the Ottoman Empire’s army, these elites, represented in large part by Mammad Amin Rasulzadeh and his Musavat Party, seized the moment to establish the ADR, whose government was then divided into separate branches and featured a Parliament stocked with a wide range of nationalities, from ethnic Azeris to Jews, and political forces, from nationalists and liberal democrats to Islamists and leftists. Other key pillars of the new Azerbaijan was Baku State University, whose establishment in 1919 marked the birth of a new intelligentsia, as well as women’s suffrage. “It was quite progressive, not only in regard to the new East but even to Europe,” says Zaur Gasimov, a research fellow at the Orient-Institut Istanbul.

In a September 1919 speech, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson reportedly recalled encountering Azerbaijani delegates at the Paris Peace Conference earlier that year. Although he didn’t know their origin upon first meeting them, he was clearly struck: “I was talking to men who talked the same language that I did in respect of ideas, in respect of conceptions of liberty, in respect of conceptions of right and justice.”

Despite its lofty accomplishments, however, the ADR wasn’t destined to last. Unprepared for such a wide-ranging political experiment, Azerbaijani society was woefully bereft of technocrats and other experts well-versed in functional bureaucracy. Under Russian rule, neither Muslims nor Jews were allowed to serve in the military, which forced the ADR government to cobble together an army of foreign hires and novices. That’s in addition to territorial conflicts with neighbors and the weight of international powers vying for influence over the greater region. All this made Azerbaijan ripe for occupation by the Red Army in 1920, according to Gasimov. “Within a couple of days,” he says, “they occupied the whole country.”

Yet the republic’s memory lives on, even if under somewhat precarious circumstances. Azerbaijan continued its nation-building project as part of the Soviet Union, though communist rule proved heavy-handed. The Soviet collapse in 1991 returned independence to Azerbaijan. In spirit — and certainly if you ask nationally conscious Azeris — it’s the logical continuation of the ADR. But for Azerbaijan’s autocratic dynasty, which has ruled the country since the early 1990s, things aren’t so simple.

According to Goyushov, the personality cult carefully built in recent years around patriarch Heydar Aliyev, whose son Ilham took over after the death of his father in 2003, has taken precedence over the memories of the ADR, which are quietly commemorated by the authorities but not celebrated with enthusiasm. “On one hand, they cannot completely deny it,” Goyushov says, “but at the same time, they would like to diminish the role of the republic in general Azerbaijani history.” At its most cynical, Goyushov adds, the current government hoists the ADR as an example of the downfalls of participatory democracy.

Politicized or not, the fleeting republic proves at least one vital point: Political innovation sometimes comes from where you least expect it.

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