What happens if European pop music and Islamic fundamentalism -- two equally powerful forces -- come head to head in Baku this week? Signs of a sequins-versus-turbans face-off already are emerging, as Azerbaijan, the host of the Eurovision 2012 Song Contest, does battle with a steady stream of tongue-lashing from neighboring Iran.
Apparently, Tehran has put aside its earlier worries of a possible Western attack on its nuclear facilities to focus on the more pressing matter of a syncopated saturnalia with gay overtones erupting to Iran's north.
The words "Azerbaijan" and "gay pride" are not often seen together, but one senior Azerbaijani presidential administration official nonetheless felt the need to clarify matters for Iran.
“We are hosting a song contest, not a gay parade,” bristled Ali Hasanov, head of the administration's political and public policy department and Azerbaijan's de-facto point-man for all Eurovision PR matters. “I do not know who got this idea into their heads in Iran.”
As has been done previously, he also advised Tehran to stay away from Azerbaijan, a fellow predominantly Shi'ite Muslim country, as the strobe lights start to flash. “We made it clear to them not to mess with us and we will not mess with you,” Hasanov said.
Azerbaijan, which maintains friendly relations with both the US and Israel, has promised not to get involved in Iran's fight with the West over its nuclear ambitions, but has arrested scores of individuals described as Iranian-backed terrorists. A stepped-up police presence is visible in Baku, and protests were staged outside the Iranian embassy in Baku after Tehran's initial gay-pride comments.
But keeping Iran at arm's length is often easier said than done, some Azerbaijani officials might say. Last night, residents of Baku found in their mailboxes leaflets and a CD condemning the plans to host the Eurovision Song Contest and, supposedly (denials notwithstanding), a gay pride march. Videos on the CDs regale viewers with stories of Islamic martyrs, castigate the Azerbaijani government for closing mosques and banning (informally) headscarves in schools, and threatens Islam's foes with a series of natural disasters. Baku claims that Iranian-sponsored religious groups are behind the extremist junk-mail.
The 2012 Eurovision Song Contest begins tomorrow. Hold tight for glitzy pop acts and fire from the sky.