WE WERE DESCENDING from the mediaeval Saint George’s chapel overlooking Mukhrani valley toward the majority ethnic Azerbaijani village of Tsikhisdziri. We were thirsty as eucalyptus and I was longing for a cigarette. In the first store at the outskirts of the village, an Armenian shopkeeper gave us the water but not cigarettes. After the recent price hike many village stores just stopped selling them.
In search of cigarettes we bumped into a company of locals at another village store. Here was the true Caucasus in its essence: my host and guide, a Georgian Azerbaijani talking in Georgian to an Assyrian woman; the Assyrian woman talking to me in Azerbaijani; me, an Azerbaijani from Azerbaijan, talking to a Russian grandmother in Russian, and the Georgian shopkeeper who apparently understood all languages spoken but managed to utter not a word even when he sold me a pack of cigarettes.
We in the Caucasus may not speak one common language literally, but we all can understand each other, can talk and trade and live together. This is what my newly-found heaven on the Earth, the village of Tsikhisdziri demonstrates yet again. But let us not forget that this idyll is as fragile as a fine glass. Believe me, I am from Baku, I have seen with my own eyes how a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional community, which took two centuries to build, collapsed in the span of just a few months.
ISMAIL GOES TO SLEEP with a phone in his hand, scrolling down his Facebook timeline endlessly and looking for political news and discussions until his brain turns off. It may seem like some sort of social media addiction but in this way Ismail is constantly battling a time zone difference. Maybe it is bedtime in Virginia where Ismail now lives, but life is bustling in Baku and political content on Facebook is at its peak.
A popular radio host in the 1990s, Ismail has recently re-invented himself as an online media activist as we call them in Baku where an increasingly authoritarian government got hold of almost all TV, print and online media long ago. A handful of individuals like Ismail play a vital role of the free media in Azerbaijan, reporting the unreported and giving a voice to the unheard.
These online media activists use YouTube and Facebook to broadcast political commentary and interviews, and do live videos where they discuss national politics long banished from TV channels. Not all of this online programming is OK in terms of fairness but Ismail tries to be different. His background in journalism comes handy here. He checks facts beforehand, censors his emotions, pays attention to language and stays vigilant to fake news.
Being a YouTube star is laborious especially if you are a journalist, talk about Azerbaijani politics and live in the US. But for Ismail, battling time zones and the government in Baku is the least of his challenges.
Ismail is also openly gay and this is still an issue in the conservative Azerbaijani society.
When Ismail decided to become an activist, didn’t he know that he was making himself a target of the most vicious homophobic hate speech?
“I knew it from the very first moment, I expected it from the beginning,” says Ismail with the impeccable voice of a newscaster, – “but it was an act of riot. It was my rebellion.”
ISMAIL’S REBELLION is not only for public good, but also a personal battle long overdue. He first became a target of homophobic remarks when he was getting popular as a radio host. Some people even managed to call in and insult him on his live show. Ismail decided he needed a break so he left Azerbaijan in 1997 to pursue a master’s degree. But he didn’t return.
Ismail deserted the frontline for the first time.
Sixteen years later family obligations brought Ismail back to Azerbaijan and he had a change of heart. Maybe he could give himself a second chance. He could start from scratch to build his life here and make Baku his home again. But then a tragedy happened and upended all of Ismail’s nascent dreams.
On 22 January 2014 an Azerbaijani LGBT activist Isa Shahmarli took his life by hanging himself with a rainbow flag. In his suicide note posted on Facebook, Isa wrote that this world was not strong enough to carry his colours and that “you all are guilty in my death”. The news took the public attention by storm and immediately unleashed a barrage of homophobic hate speech.
Ismail took it personally. He spent the whole night replying to homophobic comments on social media, engaging and debating hatemongers, calling for common sense. The next morning he had a nervous breakdown and even lost his voice. He was devastated. His dreams of settling back in Baku and starting a new life were shattered. He left Azerbaijan the same week.
Ismail deserted the frontline a second time.
MY HOST AND GUIDE in Tsikhisdziri, Elchin is a Georgian Azerbaijani and Mtskhetan for several generations. His ancestors were in the service of the princes of Mukhrani looking after their livestock in peace time and defending their vineyards and pastures during wars.
On our long hike to and from Saint George’s chapel, Elchin talks about current affairs all the time. As an Azerbaijani idiom says, his heart is full. His Georgian philologist father and his brother, another Georgian philologist in the family tend to talk more about Razikashvili and Javakhishvili rather than Saakashvili or Ivanishvili. So here am I, a perfect gift from the Heavens, willing to listen to all earthly talk of politics.
“Do you know why I openly support LGBT rights?” – Elchin says at one point.
I don’t know why, but also I don’t know how we arrived there. Surely not a comfortable topic when two men are hiking a mountain trail taking to the church.
“Because all authoritarian politicians who want to take control of the society,” – Elchin clarifies, – “they first attack the LGBT community. Everybody hates them. They are the most vulnerable so the process starts with them and the people in their naivety support it.”
Elchin’s argument is all too clear and powerful at the same time. It is a kind of thought that leaves you amazed by its simplicity when you finally reach it at the end of a lengthy process of thinking.
It is also a strong rebuke to many public intellectuals, opposition politicians and pro-democracy activists in our part of the world who keep silence in the matter of LGBT rights and even continue to keep their silence loudly when there is a crackdown on LGBT communities or restriction of their basic rights.
So the frontline goes through the field of LGBT rights. The first line of trenches, that is. If you fail to defend it whether you are afraid to speak out or just hate people not like you, you are doomed to lose other trenches as well.
Thinking of life as trench warfare seems a bit strange, but maybe it is a more realistic picture of it.
ISMAIL WAS CAUGHT OFF THE GUARD despite all his mental preparations.
“I was thinking that I would be targeted mostly by pro-government people for being gay. After all, it is the government that I criticize the most” says Ismail, – “but I was shocked when I saw that it was also the pro-opposition people that attacked me, the very people who profess pro-democratic aspirations.”
He has been called, among other filthy names, an “American pig” and was told that all people like him would be hanged when there is a regime change. Sometimes though he receives ignorant comments like why he doesn’t wear women’s clothes if he is gay.
As someone who has spent most of his life in the United States, and a free speech advocate, Ismail is not against hate speech per se – if it is an individual opinion. “Not everybody has to like me,” he says. The problem in a non-free society like Azerbaijan is that here hate speech is not an individual opinion, but in the absence of free speech, it has become a political tool used by the government and the opposition alike. It is a reliable and tested mechanism to wage war against political opponents.
“Tomorrow, when there is a political opening in Azerbaijan and political freedoms can be exercised,” says Ismail, “hate speech can destabilize the entire society if it is unprepared.”
Therefore something should be done starting now and not just by suppressing hate speech on social media. All efforts of cleansing the Internet of hate speech are not a remedy according to Ismail:
“Social media do not create or increase hate speech. They just reflect the true situation. They reveal the existing level of hate in the society. If you are going to suppress or censor hate speech on social media without fighting it in the society, it will simply go deeper underground and result in breeding terrorists, as has happened with white supremacists in the U.S.”
Hate speech should not be punished, thinks Ismail, who is himself a target of ruthless hate speech online. Hate speech must be counteracted in the society through education, awareness raising, public campaigns and dialogue. Only through real efforts it is possible to neutralize the power of hate and hate speech. So says Ismail who is back at the frontline again.
THE SOVIET UNION COLLAPSED not because of hate or hate speech, but hate had facilitated its demise in most ugly ways. Ethnic nationalism resurging in the last years of the Union, and all the hate that it had brought along, especially ravaged the South Caucasus, wreaking havoc to multi-ethnic communities, damaging centuries of peaceful cohabitation and leaving non-healing wounds in the social fabric of all countries.
Even after thirty years we are not capable yet of overcoming all the problems we inherited from that period of the unrestrained reign of hate. And it is not modest either to complain now because back then we were all both victims and culprits at the same time.
It is a perfect example of how hate and hate speech can destabilize an entire society when after a long period of a closed system there is suddenly a political opening. Genies are released from their bottles and contrary to popular beliefs their granting of all wishes always comes at a harsh price.