Azerbaijan: dangerous words
22 Nov 2011

This weekend’s stabbing of Rafiq Tagi is a stark reminder of just how risky it can be to write about politics or religion in Azerbaijan. Emin Milli, who was jailed after criticising the government, describes the dangers of speaking out

Index on Censorship is sad to report that Rafiq Tagi died from his wounds in hospital on 23 November

In Azerbaijan, whenever you share your criticisms of religion or the government you know that it may be the last time you are able to do so. This thought might have run through the mind of prominent writer Rafiq Tagi when he was stabbed on Saturday, 19 November in Baku. According to Tagi, an unknown man “who was very nervous and did not say a word” knifed him from behind several times and then ran away. The writer survived (though he is still in hospital), just as he survived his stint in prison.

Tagi was sentenced to three years in jail for a 2006 article published an article in Senet newspaper. “Europe and us” criticised Islam and argued that the religion holds back the economic and political development of some Muslim countries, including Azerbaijan. Religious groups in Azerbaijan and neighbouring Iran reacted with anger, saying he had insulted the Prophet Mohammed, and Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani issued a fatwa calling for his execution. Tagi served eight months of his prison term, but following international criticism Tagi and four other journalists were pardoned by the president.

Following the attack on Tagi, I asked myself a series of questions. If the attack was motivated by his criticism of Islam, did it follow that he was considered to be the ultimate evil, an evil that disturbs Muslims’ peace and harmony and prevents them from scientific development or from bringing about justice in their own societies? Though the Koran promotes peace and considers the rejection of violence to be a profound victory — an example set by the prophet in the chapter (or surra) “victory” —  are those who physically attack Tagi really saying that Islam supports violence, seeing it as the only way to solve conflict? My own father died while I was in jail and I asked the same question of a mullah who preached hatred and violence against non-Muslims at my father’s small funeral ceremony, which I organised in jail. That mullah never answered my questions. He ran away and avoided meeting me for the rest of my stay in jail.

During my own time in prison, I read a short story by Rafiq Tagi, published in the literary magazine Alatoran. I asked myself: Can this man still be alive after writing so daringly? He was merciless in his criticism of religion and the current government. Exercising free speech in an authoritarian state is a deadly risk — even if that country is only “softly” authoritarian. It’s an even greater risk when its neighbour, Iran, is ruled by a brutal theocratic regime.

One of Tagi’s recently published articles is entitled “Iran and Globalisation”. It is a devastating assessment of the system of values currently dominant in Iran. In an interview following the assassination attempt, he suggested that this article may of sparked the attack.

One of my friends, philosopher Agalar Mammadov, once said that “words are dead in Azerbaijan”. But the number of attacks on activists like myself, and journalists like Tagi show that words are not obsolete. You can be punished for your words; killed for what you think and write. Rafiq Tagi lives in Azerbaijan and has no plans to leave the country. Unlike Salman Rushdie, he does not get a police escort when he appears in public. He has not run away; he stands behind his words. That deserves huge respect regardless of what we may think of his views on religion, God or life in general.

Emin Milli is a writer currently studying in the UK. He was imprisoned for his critical views of the government of Azerbaijan in 2009. In 2010, he and fellow activist Adnan Hajizade were nominated for an Index on Censorship freedom of expression award .

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