What does auto racing have to do with religious freedom? In Azerbaijan, everything.
Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority nation situated in the South Caucasus and at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, recently hosted a Formula 1 Grand Prix event for the second year in a row. Three pre-race practices and a qualifying race took place during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, while the race itself was held on the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.
In Saudi Arabia, women are legally barred from driving year-round. In Azerbaijan, Formula 1 cars buzz around a racing track in Baku at speeds of up to 240 miles per hour—during a Muslim holy month.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, women are forbidden from watching men’s sports in stadiums. In Azerbaijan, which shares a border with Iran, women can watch men race in a major international sporting event on the eve of a Muslim holiday.
Notice the difference?
While approximately 92 percent of Azerbaijanis are Muslims, Azerbaijan is a bona fide Western nation where religious minorities are appropriately protected and respected, while secular liberties like attending an auto race are welcomed—even during the most sacred time on the Islamic calendar.
But why is Azerbaijan religiously tolerant and open to secular forms of entertainment, unlike so many other Muslim-majority countries? It starts with proper separation of church and state. Azerbaijan’s constitution affirms the country as a secular state and ensures religious freedom for its citizens.
According to a Gallup International/WI Network of Market Research poll published in April 2015, Azerbaijan ranked as one of the most secular nations among the 65 countries covered in the survey, with 54 percent of Azerbaijani respondents describing themselves as either not religious or atheist. Irreligious or atheistic citizens would need to hide their beliefs in the theocratic, autocratic Muslim states of Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the secular, democratic, Muslim-majority nation of Azerbaijan, they can not only believe what they wish without fear of government persecution, but they can even choose to attend a high-profile public sporting event rather than making preparations for Eid al-Fitr.
The recent race lived up to the hype, with Daniel Ricciardo earning the win, but the top two drivers in the Formula 1 championship standings—leader Sebastian Vettel and second-ranked Lewis Hamilton—garnered most of the headlines for their dramatic crash.
“It was just a crazy race, with all the safety cars and the chaos,” Ricciardo said, The Associated Press reported.
In the climax of the frantic race, Hamilton appeared to stop right in front of Vettel, causing Vettel to collide into him. Vettel proceeded to accelerate next to Hamilton, and seemed to intentionally swerve back into him. Vettel received a 10-second penalty, but still finished fourth in the race, one spot ahead of Hamilton. The rival drivers’ war of words continues to play out in the media as of this writing, more than a week after their clash in Baku.
This level of excitement surrounding an international sporting event would not be possible in most other places in the Muslim world. Yet in Azerbaijan, Baku’s racing track was designed to emphasize the picturesque panoramic views of the capital city’s downtown area. President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and first lady Mehriban Aliyeva watched the opening ceremony and the race itself.
Such details are more than just symbolic. They are concrete examples of how sports, entertainment and Western culture are celebrated in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, making the country an oasis of hope in the otherwise repressive Muslim world. In the year leading up to the next Formula 1 race in Baku, the international community should learn to understand this event’s true significance.
Jacob Kamaras is an editor for the Jewish News Service, and is noted for his work on the Middle East and American politics. His writing has appeared in FoxNews.com, the Washington Times, Independent Journal Review, the American Spectator, and various Jewish and Israeli media.