A ‘scholar at risk’ finds sanctuary
The Department of Comparative Politic's new guest professor is a target of the Azerbaijani regime.
“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea.”
That sentiment, by Oscar Wilde, is one that many scholars might agree with.
But Rail Safiyev does more than agree with it. He lives it.
Safiyev, a guest professor this year in the Department of Comparative Politics, is an expert on authoritarianism and corruption in his home country of Azerbaijan.
His position at UiB was arranged and funded by Scholars at Risk, which champions the human rights of academics whose work places them in danger.
Safiyev has for years been a vocal critic of corruption and other practices of his country’s ruling regime. He entered Scholars at Risk after the government launched a smear campaign against him.
Safiyev’s academic publications speak volumes about his views. They include “Azerbaijan: A dictatorship built on a capitalist economy,” “From illegal ownership toward ‘bureaucratic oligarchy’” and “State capture in Azerbaijan.”
In recent years, numerous Azerbaijani human-rights activists, journalists and bloggers have been jailed by the regime on fabricated charges.
Meanwhile, Safiyev, who at the time was working in Germany, was targeted for character assassination.
“Starting from 2014, there have been diverse media attacks on me, discrediting me academically and personally, some of them totally embarrassing,” Safiyev says.
“Those kinds of smear campaigns are intimidation,” he says, aimed at pressuring him to “abstain from my critical views.”
Despite his outspokenness, Safiyev doesn’t characterize himself as a political activist. He says the “political activism and braveness of many journalists, NGO workers and ordinary citizens of Azerbaijan know no comparison. But I call things by name in my research.”
Safiyev became politicized when he was a youth, studying and teaching at the state university in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. There, he says, he was inspired by ideas of democratic change, and hungered to improve the situation in Azerbaijan.
To that end, he went to Germany to pursue a Ph.D. at the Free University of Berlin, studying under Hajo Funke, a prominent critic of right-wing extremism.
Last year, Safiyev was a guest lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences in Vienna.
Safiyev says he’s thankful to be supported by Scholars at Risk. Headquartered in New York City, the organization has more than 400 participating universities, including the University of Bergen, which serve as safe havens for academics and other intellectuals facing persecution.
“I regard it as very generous,” Safiyev says. “It stretched out its helping hands to many academicians, including me in hard times … to protect open society and academic freedom.”
He is similarly grateful to Norway for its openness and egalitarianism, and to the academic community here. “In our vibrant faculty of Comparative Politics,” he says, “I feel the same honesty and readiness to help.”