Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith and I journeyed to Azerbaijan, a very special country along the Caspian Sea. We were there to promote our 2011 Hours Against Hate campaign. Throughout 2011, we are asking young people to pledge their time for someone that doesn't look, live or pray like they do. So many young people around the world have told us that they don't want to live in a world with divides and hatred, so we are providing them a vehicle to take action! This is their chance to walk in someone else's shoes, to learn about a new culture or religion, to help someone who is less fortunate.
Azerbaijan has over 2,000 years of history of multiculturalism; we see this through its living monuments that represent the country's long held tradition of religious tolerance. Sha Hi Lar and Juma mosque, demonstrates the Islamic history in this country. Similarly, in the old city, with buildings from the 12th Century, you can see through etchings on the walls the relics of the different religious groups that lived within them.
Amongst our many diverse meetings, we had the honor of visiting the new synagogue of the Mountain Jews--a community of Jewish people who have lived in Azerbaijan for over 2,600 years. The rabbi informed us that Special Representative Pandith and I were the first official visitors to the new synagogue, and our message and 2011 Hours Against Hate campaign was the perfect way to open the door of this place of worship.
Of course, historical sites that show the history of religion and culture in Azerbaijan are important, but in order to get a real feel for the country you have to talk to the people, which is exactly what we did! The spirit of mutual respect that is enshrined in Azerbaijan's history is alive and well with the country's next generation. One young man said to us, "We can tell you about the Azerbaijani identity -- it is not your ethnicity or your religion, it is a set of values." In every school, community center, and program where we talked to young people this set of values was immediately clear. To be Azerbaijani is to be blind to divides of race and religion and to celebrate diversity.
The 2011 Hours Against Hate campaign is spreading, and we are thrilled to have so many young people in Azerbaijan and across the world supporting the message, pledging their time, and making this campaign their own. If you look at the campaign's Facebook page, you will see several young Azerbaijanis who recorded videos for 2011 Hours Against Hate. One girl is organizing a group to volunteer at Save the Children, helping kids who are less fortunate, while another said he is going to volunteer with people who have been victims of war. Peace Corps volunteers are also jumping on the bandwagon and will be organizing service projects in the communities where they live.
One of our last meetings in Azerbaijan was with Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazade who is the leader of the Muslim community for all the Caucasus. He expressed concern about the influx of negative information via the Internet. As someone who isn't a "digital native" like all the young people we met (but yes, I do have a Twitter account! @HannahAtState), I understood his worry. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the 2011 Hours Against Hate campaign is doing just the opposite. People all over the world are using the Internet as a tool to mobilize for good. With a click of a mouse, a SMS text, or 140 characters on Twitter, people are pledging their time to touch the life of someone who is different than them.
So the question still remains…What will you do; How many hours will you pledge; Who will you reach out to to stop hate?