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Surprising Developments in Azerbaijan

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to give a speech to a group of inspiring young people. The group was in fact a delegation of the First Convention of the Global Youth Movement for the Alliance of Civilization.

It included musicians from Brunei, computer scientists from Norway, social workers from Fiji, electronic engineers from Colombia, civil engineers from Nigeria, and many many more, about one hundred young leaders all in all, from around the world. All were brought together by a shared belief that intercultural dialogue was valuable in itself, to help to build a world in which leaders solved disputes by picking up the phone to each other, and different societies and cultures focus on what they had in common, not what set them apart.

These were young people who had worked to organize other young people in their respective countries, the activists who make politics happen on the streets and in the homes of ordinary people, not just in the government buildings of a secure elite. Listening to them over the days of the convention, I learned a lot myself.

They talked about the wave of inspiration being unleashed by the democratic uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, of the potential for a new, bottom-up order in the Middle East, and a new tradition of government responsiveness to popular demands in that region. They talked about how this new situation incentivizes different skills: how to organize, how to advocate, how to build political parties, how to run a campaign, how to read the public mood, how to express our ideas, how to inspire others, and how to hold candidates to account once they have won power, so we know whether we should vote for them again next time.

But none of this was really the most astonishing thing about this event. The most astonishing thing about it was not what was said, but where all this was.

Because this, the World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, took place in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

The fact is that quietly, over the last few years, the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan has been carving out something of a niche for itself as a capital for intercultural dialogue.

The idea to create a UN Alliance of Civilizations was proposed by the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and supported by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2005. But since then, there has been a conference on "Youth for the Alliance of Civilizations" in Baku under the chairmanship of Azerbaijan's first lady, an International Summit on Interfaith Dialogue in 2010, the Baku Declaration, "a new appeal to the world to promote intercultural dialogue," and finally this -- the World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue.

The head of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- ISESCO -- has even said that Baku is the world center for the dialogue of civilizations, and the Council of Europe has given its blessing to the Baku Process. (ISESCO, by the way, operates under the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the second largest international organization after the UN).

It seems that Azerbaijan has spotted a gap in the political marketplace for international fora on intercultural and interfaith dialogue. But in a way, Azerbaijan's place as a hub for dialogues between civilizations makes sense. It is on the intersection between the historical East and West, and north and south. And as a member of both Islamic and European organizations, Azerbaijan understands the values of both.

In the past ten years, the country has been reaching out. It has formally begun relations with eight African countries, three South American countries, three countries in Oceania, and has good relations with the European Union and Israel, one of the few Muslim majority countries to do so.

The conference impressed me. It was attended by world leaders, public figures, heads of international organizations, heads of states and governments, ministers of culture and ambassadors, as well as officials from NGOs. But most of all it was the spirit of the young people which impressed me. Let us hope that Azerbaijan can deliver on the promise of this global youth.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.

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