Orientalism in Azerbaijan

A Response to Elmir Mirzayev’s “Bir daha “öz yolumuz var” tezisi haqda.”

Although I was in the same conversation that Elmir Mirzayev mentions in his article “

Bir daha ‘öz yolumuz var’ tezisi haqda

,” there appears to have been two very different discussions occurring there. I’d like to bring out what many in the conversation saw as significant for Azerbaijan and beyond.

An international group (Azerbaijani’s inside and outside of Azerbaijan, and Europeans and Americans) sought to examine how Edward Said’s understanding of Orientalism played a role in the public writings of contemporary Azerbaijani journalists and thinkers.

Since Mr. Mirzayev did not take the time to explain  Mr. Said’s book, I’ll give a brief synopsis of the argument. Said viewed Orientalism as a discourse (a node in a network of texts) developed by Europeans, particularly France and Britain during the 19


 and 20


 Centuries, as a way to create knowledge about peoples outside the imagined “West.” They did this, according to Said for two primary purposes:

1.    To define “the West” in opposition to the other

2.    To implement the power-knowledge relationship to subjugate non-European peoples as a part of the process of imperialism. (Note: power-knowledge is a concept defined by French Philosopher of History, Michele Foucault—who wrote after the distinguished Europeans Mr. Mirzayev mentioned in his article–as the idea that forms of power create knowledge and knowledge tends to reinforce power)

The Orientalist discourse was based on the dichotomy of attributes. The Orient was feminine, the “West” masculine. Other dichotomies included: primitive-civilized, weak-strong, sexual-moral, exotic-ordinary.

Said’s opinion and the opinion of many of today’s scholars and thinkers is that the creation of such dichotomies is false and detrimental to the formation of an inclusive society.

Here, Mr. Mirzayev, might have developed the idea that the conversation was to push the statement of “’bizim öz yolumuz var’ və bu yol Avropadan fərqlənirmiş.” There were indeed several different perspectives offered in the discussion, one of which included the idea of hybridity.

Hybridity is a concept put forward by several post-colonial theorists (the people we might call the successors of Said). Gayatry Spivak and Homi Bhabha theorized that although the Orientalist discourse was often internalized by the colonized peoples, many had accepted some elements of the discourse and integrated it into a previously existing discourse and narrative.

This mixing of discourses is hybridity. And according to Homi Bhabha, hybridity is one of the strengths of the colonized people. Since they have been educated in the system of the colonizer, they are able to take his discourse, turn it upside down and use it against the colonizer himself.

The concern of the people who had lived many years in Europe (as Mr. Mirzayev pejoratively calls them) and others who still live in Azerbaijan, but who desire to interact critically with the beliefs received from the modernist thinkers and seek out new and alternative perspectives for a path forward, was that many in Azerbaijan had still not been able to move beyond the blind faith in “Western-ness” as a road to progress and survival.

As brilliant as Mirza Jalil was, he was a man of his time. He had to deal with the situation as it was. He saw the Turks and Muslims as significantly weaker than the European forces that had consolidated into nations on the basis of science, economic development and progress, and had expanded their power across the world through empires. This was a strong motivator for the recommendation to emulate them.

Mr. Mirzayev does not take into consideration that the situation has changed in the past century. The nations that Mirza Jalil saw as unified and pure are now much more diverse. The people who have spent too much time in Europe (and the United States) have actually become a part of us—the American and European nations. Their hybridity has changed our own discourses. In fact, they have helped us see that we are all hybrids. We no longer seek to be purebred nations.

Many of the people who were arguing for moving beyond Orientalism in Azerbaijan, were in all actuality making the same appeal that a great post-colonial thinker Partha Chatterjee made in his book The Nation and Its Fragments. They were bringing forth the idea that the nation in Azerbaijan needs to accept its hybrid nature and the benefits of many different perspectives.

Chatterjee has claimed that the biggest problems India faces come from its fear of its fragments—its diversity, inclusiveness and it critical interaction with its past.

“Fragmentation” is an often repeated fear in Azerbaijan. Calls for accepting the one road provided to Azerbaijan by the great thinkers at the beginning of the twentieth century is a manifestation of this fear.

However, it is that inability to accept the importance of debate, the need for difference in society that can potentially stop the movement toward an open, free and democratic country. Even the intellectuals of the beginning of the century, Mirza Jalil Mammedgulzada, Hashim Bey Vazirov Abu Turab Afandizada, Ali Bey Huseynzada and Mirza Alakbar Sabir disagreed on the avenues of national development. In fact, their debates are what advanced these ideas.

Many of the people taking part in the discussion Mirzayev writes about were simply saying that there is a need to continue interacting critically with the thoughts of these great intellectuals and with each other to see whether other options are available.

I say this from my home in the United States, the country to which I returned after having lived a long time in Azerbaijan. When I returned home, I saw the fear of fragmentation growing in books like “Who Are We?” by Samuel Huntington (an author who did not have the warmest of feelings for Edward Said), and in my neighbors’ inability to have open dialogue on those things that make us different—politics, religion and views of the future.

The interactions around me tend to focus on safe topics like popular culture and sports. While in Azerbaijan, I had grown used to open conversations and disagreements about internal and external politics. Of course, there were limits to these conversations and the fear of fragmentation was often hidden behind many of the discussions, particularly regionalism and the divide between the religious and the secular.

For this reason, I can safely: the problem has not already been solved. It needs to be addressed anew by each generation. And perhaps when talking about the direction of Azerbaijan, citizens are not reinventing the bicycle, but rather the people in the conversation are saying that the bicycle can be improved upon by looking in new directions not available to the great thinkers of modernism.

This article originally appeared on

Kerry Cosby’s blog


Kerry Cosby is a writer and researcher on global affairs. He spent a total of nine years in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, working for the Peace Corps and international NGOs. He was the editor-in-chief of the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report for Azerbaijan in 2007.

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