Aydin Balayev: "History and language shape national identity"

By Vestnik Kavkaza
Aydin Balayev: "History and language shape national identity"

This year Azerbaijan will celebrate the 150th anniversary of statesman Ahmet Bey Ağaoğlu, who made an important contribution to the formation of Azerbaijani national identity along with Mammad Amin Rasulzadeh and Alimardan Bey Topchibashi. The decree to celebrate the jubilee of the lawyer and orientalist was signed by President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev. The leading researcher at the Archeology and Ethnography Institute of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, Aydin Balayev, told Vestnik Kavkaza about the formation of national ideology in Azerbaijan.

- In your opinion, what importance does the government attach to preserving and promoting the heritage of the Azerbaijani nation ideologues of the early 20th century?

- The Azerbaijani President's decrees and orders on holding anniversaries of well-known Azerbaijani political figures and thinkers of the early 20th century are undoubtedly a manifestation of the government's care and attention to studying and promoting the historical heritage of the Azerbaijani people of that period. These decrees and orders could be a good impetus for conducting further detailed study in this direction and introducing the work of prominent personalities of the early 20th century, who were at the forefront of the formation of the Azerbaijani nation, to the general public. But the problem is that the government offices and entities entrusted with the direct implementation of presidential decrees often take its responsibilities quite formally. First of all, I mean the Ministry of Culture and the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences. There are big concerns that a similar fate awaits the recent presidential decree on celebrating the 150th anniversary of Ahmet Bey Ağaoğlu, and ultimately, everything will be limited to holding one or two meetings or conferences tо observe formalities. Meanwhile, the presidential decree creates an excellent opportunity to popularize the work of Ahmet Bey Ağaoğlu, who played a prominent role in the national movement of the Azerbaijani people in the early 20th century. Moreover, not only general public, but also many of our intellectuals still have little knowledge of this extraordinary person's immense services in the national revival of Azerbaijanis.

- What is the value of the ADR leaders' heritage for the modern Azerbaijani statehood in the formation of national identity?

- It is difficult to overestimate their role. They literally changed the course of our history with their theoretical work and practical actions. Even at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, religious and regional affiliation in Azerbaijani people's minds was much stronger than ethnic identification. Azerbaijanis considered themselves primarily Muslims and representatives of a different region. The ideas of Pan-Turkism formulated at the beginning of the 20th century by Ahmet bey Ağaoğlu and Ali bey Huseynzade made a difference. These ideas gave impetus to the process of awakening the national life, contributed to the liberation of Azerbaijanis' self-consciousness from the clutches of Islamic identity. Being a deeply secular ideology, Turkism turned Azerbaijanis "from Mecca to Altai." Turkism did not recognize the differences between the Turkic peoples, mistakenly considering them to be a single nation, but the common Turkic identity formed by them became some transitional stage from the religious one to the Azerbaijani national identity. The contribution of Huseynzade and Ağaoğlu was that they gave solid theoretical grounds for the national identity searching in Azerbaijan and undermined the undivided dominance of religious identity, forming a strong ideological foundation for the development of a coherent conceptual system of Azerbaijanism by Mammad Amin Rasulzadeh - the project of creating an Azerbaijani nation-state.

There is no doubt there would not be Razulzade and the ideology of Azerbaijanism without Ağaoğlu and Huseynzade. In the present conditions, when emissaries of various foreign Islamic centers do not abandon attempts to restore the religious identity's positions in Azerbaijan, which constitutes a real threat to the national security of the country, the ideas of Ağaoğlu, Huseynzade, Rasulzade and Alimardan Bey Topchibashi can become the most effective means of combating them.

- What tools exist today for shaping a national identity in Azerbaijani society? Who can be engineers in nation-building?

- I think there is no need to reinvent the wheel. In any modern society, the two most important means of forming a national identity are history and language. After all, anthropologists are almost unanimous now that historical ideas, images of a glorious past and great ancestors play an important role in national mobilization. In this sense, history is the answer to the current requests. The fact is that in the view of the secularization of modern society, religion is increasingly replaced by the image of the sacred past, which becomes an important basis of national identity and is widely used to legitimize the political, economic, social and cultural rights of a given nationality. Symbols and representations constructed by historians are spread within the society through school, media, fiction and cultural institutions, becoming part of national identity. Therefore, any modern state attaches great importance to the official version of history and try to convey it to the citizens. The second most important means of forming a nation is language. The most important task at this stage is improving the quality of Azerbaijani history textbooks and updating ways to promote national history among the population, as well as raising the real prestige and social status of the Azerbaijani language in society.

Given that the formation of a nation begins precisely with the emergence of a corresponding ideology, when a small group of intellectuals declare the existence of a nation, the intelligentsia is undoubtedly an engineer of a nation. As a rule, images of the nation and concepts of national interests are discussed, formed and reproduced by intellectuals and educated people, which then convened to the population. In this regard, politicians, poets, artists, journalists, historians and linguists play an important role in the formation of a nation. For this reason, sometimes they say that almost all European nations are projects of representatives of romanticism. Indeed, the formation of the nation in Scotland was tremendously influenced by Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, in Denmark - by Hans Christian Andersen and Bertel Thorvaldsen, in Poland - by Frederic Chopin, Adam Mickiewicz and Henryk Sienkiewicz, in Italy - by Giuseppe Mazzini, in Finland - by Elias Lönnrot, in Germany - by Schiller, Goethe and Herder. As for the Azerbaijani nation, its engineers are Mirza Fatali Akhundov, Ahmet Bey Ağaoğlu, Ali Bey Huseynzade, Mammad Amin Rasulzadehe, Nasib Yusif oglu Yusifbeyli, Alimardan Bey Topchibashi and many other representatives of the national intelligentsia of the late 19th - early 20th centuries.

- Are there any barriers hindering the formation of a nation?

- To date, I do not see serious insurmountable barriers hindering the formation of a nation. Possessing our own national statehood, we have at our disposal a whole arsenal of various tools and means for the development and strengthening of national self-consciousness. Another thing is that they are not always used effectively. For example, having a wide audience, domestic media and television channels in the first place have virtually unlimited possibilities in this direction. They could play a key role in the formation of national identity. Unfortunately, they are clearly unable to cope with this task.

Another serious obstacle to national consolidation, the creation of a single statehood, and, consequently, the formation of a nation, is the continuing population fragmentation on a territorial basis and the dominance of local consciousness over civil one, the priority of local interests over state ones. Being a sign of the nation's immaturity, these deficiencies can lead to serious consequences in certain force majeure events.

- What work should be done to form and strengthen the national idea in Azerbaijan's civil society?

- It is necessary to strengthen awareness-raising work in this direction. It requires taking urgent measures to increase the efficiency of educational institutions, cultural institutions, the media, individual representatives of the creative intelligentsia in disseminating and promoting the national idea.

- How much does the cross-cultural interaction in the USSR influence the formation of the national intelligentsia?

- After the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of new independent states in the post-Soviet space, ties between the peoples of former Soviet republics did not break. Although we should admit that their scale has narrowed, since these peoples have become the objects of more global processes of mutual enrichment of cultures and peoples of the world. Azerbaijanis got a real opportunity to directly join the achievements of world civilization. In this regard, it is enough to note that the number of Azerbaijani students in Turkish universities is significantly higher than the number of Azerbaijanis studying in universities of Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. In addition, Azerbaijani youth are much more aware of the cultural life of Turkey than of the post-Soviet states. In this context, the influence of the factor you have mentioned on the formation of the national intelligentsia has significantly decreased, and it seems that this tendency will only intensify in the near future.