Magazine Feature / People

Professor builds understanding between U.S. and Azerbaijani Muslims

Liyakat Takim is on a mission to build bridges between the U.S. and Muslim countries.

Takim, associate professor of Islamic studies, was recently tapped by the State Department to visit the Republic of Azerbaijan to share his thoughts on Muslim life in America. 

“The State Department is interested in building relationships between different countries and different backgrounds,” Takim says. “They send scholars from the U.S. to Muslim countries and vice versa.”

Located in southwestern Asia, bordering the Caspian Sea between Iran and Russia, oil-rich Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. While 93 percent of the population is Muslim according to the CIA World Factbook, religious affiliation is still nominal in Azerbaijan.

“Under the Soviet regime, Azerbaijanis weren’t allowed to practice their religion. Those who did were literally exiled to Siberia,” says Takim. “Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a vacuum has been created in ideology and religious identity.”

According to Takim, in Azerbaijan the younger generation is seeking a more modern and reformed understanding of Islam.

“In the U.S., there is a definite paradigm shift as the community is moving from being Muslims living in America to becoming American Muslims,” says Takim. “This is a transition that many Muslims have experienced since the horrific events of Sept. 11.”

Takim spoke to several audiences daily May 14–18 at both private and state-sponsored universities in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city. He also had dinner with the U.S. ambassador at her residence.

“There were no strings attached,” says Takim. “I was not told what to say. I was free to speak my mind and share my opinions.”

Takim says his talks were very well received, and he was inundated with questions about how free Muslims are to practice their religion in the U.S. 

“They were fascinated to hear that Muslims are allowed to commemorate their religious festivals in public,” he says.

Takim was asked by both the U.S. State Department and the citizens of Azerbaijan to return to the country. Next time, he’ll speak to audiences in the suburbs and the countryside.

“While most Azerbaijanis don’t understand or appreciate the U.S. foreign policy, they appreciate the U.S. embassy’s efforts to build those bridges,” he says.

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