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September 2, 2019 10:36 am

Sustaining Peace and Development in a Changing World

avatar by Rovshan Muradov


The UN General Assembly meeting hall in New York. Photo: Reuters / Brendan McDermid.

“The first manifestation of existence was speech. … Without speech the world has no voice.”

– Nizami Ganjavi, 12th-century Azerbaijani poet, in The Treasure House of Mysteries

This September, leaders from 193 member countries around the world will convene at the United Nations in New York to attend the 74th annual session of the UN General Assembly. Their purported aim? To debate the most important issues facing the planet. A truly lofty and noble ideal.

The UN — notwithstanding its criticisms and Um-Shmum panning — plays a unique and critical global role by bringing together diverse cultures and viewpoints in what aims to be a neutral venue. And while this goal is not always easily achieved, it remains vital because in today’s interconnected globalized world, there are still far too few opportunities to truly “see the other.”

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Instead, we tend to live, breathe, and work in hermetically sealed bubbles, safe space cocoons of our own making and preservation — whether political, ideological, economic, or other. Such impenetrable walls do little to advance dialogue and understanding. In fact, they do the opposite. Too few people today seem able, let alone desire, to try to understand and to engage civilly with someone from a different background or culture, much less an opposing political or ideological viewpoint.

It is for this very purpose — bringing together diverse peoples and perspectives for open and respectful exchanges of viewpoints — that the organization I have the privilege to lead was created, in Baku, Azerbaijan of all places. And yet, if you know anything about my country, this should be no surprise at all.

Just over 100 years ago, Azerbaijan became the world’s first self-declared secular democratic Muslim-majority nation when it proclaimed its independence in 1918, before being subsumed by the Soviet Union in 1920. Since regaining its independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has pursued its own unique path while maintaining stability in an often chaotic region. In doing so, it has stood out among the nations for its twin messages of tolerance and multiculturalism.

This commitment to tolerance, multiculturalism, and bridge-building is, in part, rooted in our geography, situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and along the Caspian Sea and Silk Road — meeting points of diverse ethnic groups over centuries of trade and travel.

Today, Azerbaijan is all but an anomaly in the Muslim world, where its historical Jewish community has flourished, enjoying the full respect and support of official government authorities and the country’s multi-ethnic population. In Baku, our capital, and everywhere in the country, Jews wear kippot freely and practice their religion without fear of harassment or violence — something which sadly cannot be said about Paris or many other European, Middle Eastern, and even American cities today. Moreover, Azerbaijan has cultivated strong ties with the modern State of Israel, ranging from official state visits to intelligence sharing and military cooperation to people-to-people ties.

So, it makes perfect sense that an organization like ours, the Nizami Ganjavi International Center, was created in Azerbaijan to honor this bridge-building role by serving as a neutral forum for leading voices to discuss today’s vital issues in an atmosphere of mutual respect and civility. At our gatherings, participants revel in the opportunity to see issues from others’ points of view. Minds open. Frames of reference expand. These are transcendent moments for attendees.

This year our annual forum in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly will feature dialogue on topics ranging from sustainable development and gender equality to peace in the Middle East — and will welcome diverse speakers and attendees from all parts of the globe, including Arabs and Israelis. Our gatherings also provide an essential platform for discussing ideas to counter new and emerging “hybrid threats” such as disinformation campaigns as well as strategies to address growing manifestations of intolerance around the world, including antisemitism, racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

With today’s challenges arising in all shapes and sizes, we cannot afford not to take the time to try to understand one another, to talk to one another. To try to see the world from the other’s vantage point.

Bringing people together in person, face-to-face, is the first step in this process.

It has been written that “discourse or eloquent speech, or more particularly, precise, beautiful, and signifying language” was the underlying feature and principal concern of the great 12th century narrative poet Nizami Ganjavi, our organization’s founding namesake.

In an age when the spoken word is far too often being used in the service of sowing mistrust, discord, and divisiveness, the message and vision of Nizami Ganjavi’s legacy resonate profoundly across the ages.

We boldly dedicate ourselves — in the spirit of Nizami Ganjavi — to promoting and preserving an atmosphere of elevated discourse and eloquent speech.

In doing so, we play this role proudly, and we look forward to continuing to build bridges of peace and understanding in the years to come.

Rovshan Muradov is the Secretary General of the Nizami Ganjavi International Center, a cultural, nonprofit, non-political organization dedicated to the memory of the great 12th-century Azerbaijani poet, Nizami Ganjavi, and to the study and dissemination of his works.

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