Rafig Tagi and the Concept of Freedom


"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." Voltaire

Several days ago Azerbaijani writer Rafig Tagi was stabbed and later passed away in the hospital. The alleged motive? In 2006 he wrote an article, in which he expressed his negative views about Islam. He got a fatwa from Ayatollah Lenkerani from Iran. After his death, ayatollah's son issued a statement, congratulating the believers with "this blessed day."

This incident divided Azerbaijani internet public to two camps: those condemning the killing and those condemning the first group... because "they support what he wrote about Islam."

Sad fact: Azeris don't understand the concept of free speech. Why? For many reasons.

We are not flexible to changes unless they're imposed, that's how we got our democracy, equal rights and women empowerment. During the first oil boom in early 20th century, Haji Zeynalabdin Tagiyev, one of our millionaires built the first school for girls. What happened? He had to walk door to door and ask people to let their daughters receive education. Several years later, a group of educated individuals used the collapse of the Russian Empire to build the first Azerbaijani Democratic Republic. And that's how emancipation and equal rights were implemented. Yes, implemented, not fought for.

We are not used to thinking differently, probably, because critical thinking is extremely rare here. I refuse to think it's a result of the Islamic influence, because we've been exposed to too many cultures to limit ourselves to a single concept. No, it's not a classical religious radicalism, it's a cultural one.

During Emin and Adnan's support campaign I've had hundreds of discussions with all kinds of people. Sadly, most of them had one common point: "There are things that shouldn't be said." My response to that was: "Why? Why should we censor ourselves to unwritten rules, especially in cases with media or anything remotely close to it?" The answer: "It's against our culture." Exactly. Our culture, something we are used to believing in, something that is within our comfort zone, something our granpas would approve of.

Azeris don't understand the concept of free speech because they are too afraid of consequences. The consequences of freedom might be more than we can take. Our daughters might want independence; our sons might leave the nest and, God forbid, marry a non-virgin; our own mistakes might get exposed; our people might demand the quality of life they deserve. This is all too much to cope with and takes much more work that everyday chai meetings with friends. As a result, we only understand whatever we agree with, because everything else is too scary to even think about. And even the word "freedom" is something one can rarely hear in Azerbaijan, unless it's an oppositional gathering.

We don't understand the concept of free speech because it doesn't occur to us that it's about every single person. Example: when Azerbaijani police violently dispersed a demonstration of the religious community, I saw atheists and deists and agnostics being furious and sharing videos and information about it. Does it mean they support the religious groups? No. It means they support their rights. That easy.

Freedom of speech is one of the basic rights granted to all of us by the constitution. By opposing the right we compromise our national values to cultural ones, which is a foundation for destruction. Whoever you are and whatever you do, if you compromise someone else's right of free expression to your personal views or religious affiliation and stay silent towards injustice, you betray yourself and your rights.

And the last thought on the case of Rafig Tagi: in a country where Fatwa takes place, it should be included in Criminal Code and prosecuted. Especially, if issued by foreign citizens. Because this is about national values - a concept we are yet to learn and fight for.