I have received a lot of emails and comments from Azerbaijanis critical of my Al Jazeera article on Ramil Safarov, The axe murderer who became a Facebook hero. Most of them were from Azerbaijanis saying that Safarov should be considered a hero, because he was provoked to murder by an Armenian who insulted Azerbaijan, because he had a tragic childhood in Nagorno-Karabakh, and because his murder of the Armenian officer was an apt reprisal for Armenian war crimes. I agree with them that Safarov is a tragic case, but the tragedy lies not only in what he and his family endured, but in the public celebration of his heinous and violent actions, which has only perpetuated the tragedy.
In my article, I said that the majority of Azerbaijanis support Safarov, and I stand by that claim. But there are many Azerbaijanis who do not support him, and they are engaging in a lively debate on Facebook about the meaning and repercussions of Safarov’s release. Emin Milli, an activist and writer who has long used the internet to critique the Aliev regime, argues that the support for Safarov is not as great as I and others writing in the international media have portrayed it. “We do not know what people really think about Safarov, we do not have live, open public debates on TV channels where people could vote on this question via sms, there are no surveys, no proofs, but only government’s ubiquitous propaganda,” he points out.
While I maintain that available evidence indicates that support for Safarov is widespread, Milli’s article raises important points: first, that in a country that allows no dissent, those who challenge the state narrative of Safarov would be unlikely to speak out; second, that when prominent Azerbaijani writers condemned the celebration of Safarov on Facebook, hundreds of Azerbaijanis agreed with them. In particular, Milli cited the critical posts of Khadija Ismayil and Jamal Ali. In a brief conversation I had with the three of them, Ismayil agreed with Milli that most Azerbaijanis did not buy the government’s hero narrative, while Ali thought they did.
On Facebook, Ali wrote a post that resonated with a large number of Azerbaijanis. I think it is because he approaches the case with empathy but recognition that Safarov’s crime was reprehensible. He calls on Safarov to reject his hero status:
“I’d like to believe that Ramil Seferov regrets what he has done. He should have changed a lot in 8 years, especially in jail. I believe he did.
“I say, he must refuse the flat, money and rank which was given to him by president. and he should say to people clearly that ‘killing a sleeping Armenian is not heroism, I’m not a hero. I just could not control myself and made the biggest mistake of my life’. People are in his side and he will not be jailed again anyway.
“He has to understand the social responsibility on himself and stay away from political games and inhumane ‘hero’ status.”
One of the worst things about the (predictably) heated reaction to my article is that some have taken it as license to proclaim that Azerbaijanis, as a people, have some sort of primordial bloodlust. This is cheap and lazy rhetoric. (It is also cheap and lazy when applied to Armenians.) In the week since I wrote this article, it has become clear that the Azerbaijanis who embrace Safarov do so for a variety of reasons. Some do it out of government loyalty. Some believe that the murder was just revenge. But overwhelmingly, they argue that Safarov is a man who suffered, like millions of others, in a conflict that the world has forgotten. Proclaiming him a hero, Safarov’s supporters portray him as a victim.
What is happening in Azerbaijan is not unique. Every country in the world has embraced figures who are murderous or radical, and every country has had a significant swath of the population embrace beliefs that seem bigoted or unstable. The problem when this happens in a place like Azerbaijan is that most people know so little about Azerbaijan that they take it to represent an ingrained pattern of behavior, instead of a reaction shaped by history and political culture. (Counter to Milli, I argue that Safarov is a case of the government capitalizing on public sentiment, and then using it to their advantage, rather than imposing a position from above.)
Milli has proposed a public debate on the Safarov case, one which would include representatives of the Azerbaijani and Armenian governments, and has encouraged the international media to convene and cover it. This is a good idea – both to highlight the diversity of views, but also to encourage discussion in an area of the world dominated by propaganda, rumor and rhetoric. As Milli writes, “[The Safarov case] is very complicated story with many facets, context and details which cannot be ignored. It is not just about one man killing another man. It is much more than that.
“It is about frozen and forgotten conflict by the world, it is about authoritarian games, and it is about tragedy of two nations.”