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Friday, 28 April 2017

Nothing New Under The Sun

We think of satire as a Western thing .... and certainly not an Islamic idea. However, surprisingly not only has Islam had occasional outbursts of satire, but it was last seen just over a hundred years ago. How different the world was then, especially the Islamic world, which was in the grip of empires. The Russian, British, French and Ottoman Empires controlled the Islamic world, and this allowed some openness of thought by the secularists in the region.

Azerbaijan for example was controlled by Russia from the mid 19th century, and after a brief flourishing of independence after the first world war, was reoccupied by the Communist Russians until the final collapse of the Soviet empire in the 1990's. This spell of control by a non Islamic power gave this crossroads state access to ideas from East and West (and all points in between).

Comparing The Benefits Of Religious versus Secular Education 

So in 1906AD, the weekly satirical magazine 'Molla Nasreddin' was founded in Azerbaijan, published in the Azerbaijani language, it aimed its blows at Islamic clerics, as well as criticising the political elite, and even a few minor blows towards the Russian Tsar and the Shah of Persia .... in fact a Charlie Hebdo / Private Eye of its time, except possibly funnier. It also promoted women's rights and Westernisation, both unpopular causes at the time, but which actually led to women in Azerbaijan being granted the right to vote in 1919, at around the same time as women in the UK and US. They even published its own 'Mohammed Cartoon' in 1929 (which didn't show his face). 

The Women's House Compared To The Prison

The editor-in-chief of the magazine was Jalil Mammadguluzadeh (known as Mirza Jalil), who was a socially progressive man, who made a fair few enemies, such as the local Mullahs who said that "the magazine should not enter the house of any Muslim. If it does, they said, grab it with tongs and throw it down the toilet." 

The magazine also managed to communicate its message to the man in the street, an impressive feat when the majority of the population was illiterate. Not too surprisingly, even in those more temperate times for Islam, he was physically attacked (in Tbilisi in Georgia, the cultural capital of Russia's South Caucasus), and in Persia a Fatwah for his death was proclaimed .... but he survived. Imagine how long he would last nowadays?  He himself said that "Had I published the magazine not in Tbilisi but in Baku or Yerevan (capital of modern-day Armenia, but where Azerbaijanis made up the majority of the population at the time), they would have destroyed my office and killed me."

The magazine played an important role in the foundation of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918  .... a state which became the first Muslim-majority democratic and secular republic. It was also the first Muslim-majority country to have operas, theatres and modern universities. That influence still works a century later, as the constitution of Azerbaijan does not declare any official religion, and all major political forces in the country are still secularist, but the majority of people and some opposition movements adhere to the Shia branch of Islam.

Sadly this brave little band of journalists, and illustrators (Oskar Schmerling, a German who lived in Tbilisi, and an Azeri, Azim Azimzadeh), were finished by Soviet censorship authorities, who in the early 1930's told Mirza Jalil to change the magazine name to ''Allahsiz' (godless) and follow the principles of Soviet ideology ..... he had stood up to Islamic pressure, but was unable to accept Soviet censorship, and so closed the magazine.     

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