Azerbaijanis assume lead in studying their own identity: A conversation with Dr. Chingiz Mammadov

May 26, 2008
Baku / Washington, DC

Until very recently, foreign scholars have dominated the discussion of the national identity of Azerbaijanis.  Now, Azerbaijani scholars are taking the lead.  One of them, Chingiz Mammadov, currently a research fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, shared his views on the process of nation-building in Azerbaijan with Azerbaijan in the World.

AIW:  What is the main focus of your ongoing research?

Dr. Mammadov:  My research is on the process of nation-building in Azerbaijan.  While conducting it I examined major events and tendencies both in North Azerbaijan, which is now the Republic of Azerbaijan, and in South Azerbaijan, which is part of Iran.  I was not trying to write a detailed history of Azerbaijan; this was not my intention and it would be well beyond of the scope of this research.  My goal was rather to understand the major factors that defined Azerbaijani identity.  I have looked to the dynamic of interplay between traditions and modernity, what lessons we can learn from it, what current processes are and what impact nation-building in Azerbaijan may have on the region. 
AIW:  What is the current state of the study of Azerbaijani national identity? 

Mammadov:  Until very recently, foreign scholars have been far more active in the discussion of the national identity of Azerbaijanis, a reflection of the Soviet period when opportunities for genuine socio-political research were limited.  Among the works I have used for my research are those by Swietochowski, Altstadt, Shaffer, Gumilyov, and others.  Many of these studies are extremely valuable, insofar as they serve as useful sources of information and provide an opportunity to reflect on them.  However, our own perspective on our national identity, an “insider’s view” if you like, can illuminate certain aspects of the issue that outsiders sometimes miss. 

Let me give an example.  After the defeat of the 1905-1907 revolution in Russia, Mohammed Emin Rasulzade moved to Tehran, where in 1909 he established, and for three years edited, the newspaper “Irane-Now,” which is frequently referred to as the first modern newspaper in the history of Iran.  In discussing this period in the Azerbaijani leader’s life, Swietochowski (1985, p. 69) suggests that Rasulzade, “who one day was to become the standard-bearer of Azerbaijani nationalism, at this stage of his political life identified himself with the national cause of Persia,” a move that he suggests underlines “how nebulous the distinction could be at the time between the two national loyalties.” 

As an Azerbaijani, I have read this fact differently.  By that time, North Azerbaijan had already been more modernized and secularized than its South neighbor.  However, the Russian revolution, which Azerbaijanis had had high expectation for, was defeated, while the constitutional movement in Iran was still intact.  Now imagine a young and dynamic man – Rasulzade at that time was only 25 – full of aspirations, who finds himself in a country in which the Azeris were one of the two major ethnicities.  In that situation, it would have been far from clear to him (or to anyone else!) which country – the Russian Empire or the Gajar state – would offer the greater opportunities for Azeris to develop their identity, culture and language.  Consequently, Rasulzade’s behavior reflects not any vagueness in self-definition but rather his search for a basis for action.   

In general, outside authors have made a very important contribution to the development of pertinent scholarship on Azerbaijan.  Now it is time for us to take the lead.  A new nation begins when all major events, local and global, are conceived from its unique perspective; this is what I think makes a new nation.  This unique position is a “historical-political” code of the nation.  Though there are some valuable works by Azerbaijani scholars among which Jamil Hasanly’s (2006) At the Dawn of the Cold War stands out, [1] Azerbaijan is still weak in that, and there is still much to be done in this direction.                   

AIW:  Many who have written and talked about Azerbaijani identity have shifted among terms like Turk, Azeri Turk, Azeri and Azerbaijani in defining this identity.  How do you see these discussions and where do you come out on them? 

Mammadov:  To address this question we need to understand, first, what constitutes a nation, and second, what would be the best way to define it in our case.  Let me start with the former.  

“Nation,” unlike ethnicity, is a political category.  And for it, the main criterion is whether people consider themselves a nation or not.  All other factors are still relevant, but of less importance.  

In the Republic of Azerbaijan, the prevailing discourse is that the Azerbaijanis in the North and in the South form one nation, similar to what the dominant public opinion in the two Germanys was about during the Cold War, or the one in the two Koreas is in our days.  Among Azerbaijanis in Iran, there is a broader spectrum of views.  Many define themselves as Azerbaijanis only in an ethnic sense.  Others, on the contrary, view their future together with the brethren in the North.  At the same time, in the North more and more residents of the republic think that all citizens of Azerbaijan, regardless of their ethnicity, are Azerbaijanis, a conviction that has helped integrate Talyshes, Lazgis, ethnic Russians and others into Azerbaijani society.   

As for the definition of our identity, it is worth mentioning that some people are afraid that by calling ourselves “Azeris,” we might give aid and comfort to Iranian chauvinists, who under Iran’s Pahlavi regime dreamed up the notion that Azeris in Iran were Turkified Aryans that had spoken Persian before Turkification occurred.  I personally don’t have any concerns in this regard, as the theory of the Turkification of the Azeris in Iran is so absurd that there is no reason to worry about it.  Let us also not forget that we ourselves were taught in similar ways in Soviet times when our history books were dominated by our Albanian and Midiyan past, while nothing was there about more recent history.  But as your question suggests, it is clearly important that we come to some agreement on definitions so that we all know what we are referring to.

Another issue, one too large to discuss here, involves interaction between self-conscious elites who have tried to work these definitions out and the broader population whose members intuitively feel these identities.

Again, for myself, both “Azerbaijani” or “Azeri” are fine, as are the derivative terms for our national language.  I simply do not see any significant difference between the two.  “Azeri” is slightly shorter and convenient.  However, let me emphasize that this is something that should be discussed and decided by society as a whole and not by one author or group. 

AIW:  Are the Azerbaijanis of Iran and the Azerbaijanis of the Republic of Azerbaijan then “one nation or not”?

Mammadov:  As I’ve said earlier, a nation is a political category.  As a consequence, it is far less important that a Russian-speaking Azerbaijani, or even ethnic Russian, in Baku knows more about Alexander Nevski and less about Sattar-Khan than does an Azeri-speaker in Tabriz.  If both love Azerbaijan, if they share common beliefs and passions, then we are or at least can be one nation. 

There have been significant differences in nation building between the North and the South.  In the North, secular intellectuals have driven the process, while in the South enlightened clerics like Roshdiye, Sheikh Khiyabani, and to a lesser degree Grand Ayatollah Kazim Shariatmadari were actively involved.  But with the religious revival in the North and the alleged crisis of religion as the state ideology in Iran, that divide may be bridged.  But if that is to happen any time soon, such propitious historical developments should also be backed by purposive actions by the political elite of the two countries. 

Obviously, nation building continues in this region, and the outcome of it depends on a large number of factors, involving both elite action and mass participation.  Neither suffices to define the outcome of this process.  If the elites try to go it alone, the mass public will feel excluded, but if there is no elite effort, then there will be no focus.  To move forward, we need both.  


[1] Jamil Hasanly’s (2006) At the Dawn of the Cold War not only stands out as a valuable source of information, but, far more importantly, presents a unique Azerbaijani perspective about the period, on which the scholarship has so far been dominated by American, Russian, and European studies.    


Swietochowski, Tadeusz (1985). Russian Azerbaijan, 1905-1920: The Shaping of National Identity in a Muslim Community, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Hasanli, Jamil (2006). At the Dawn of the Cold War. The Soviet-American Crisis over Iranian Azerbaijan, 1941-1946, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.