Accessibility links

Breaking News

Azerbaijan: Does Wahhabism Pose A Threat?

Addressing a 3 August conference in Baku on "Religion and National Security," Rafik Aliyev, chairman of the Azerbaijani government's Committee for Work with Religious Formations, warned that the increased activity of "Wahhabis," meaning members of radical and/or unregistered Islamic groups, poses a threat to political stability in Azerbaijan in the run-up to the 6 November parliamentary elections. Reports of at least one, possibly two National Security Ministry operations against Wahhabis in recent weeks would seem to substantiate Aliyev's apprehension.

The first such crackdown took place on the night of 12-13 July, when National Security Ministry personnel raided the village of Novkhany near Baku, killing two "armed Wahhabis" and arresting six others. Some 30 more suspected Wahhabi sympathizers were apprehended in the district in the following days, reported on 4 August, quoting the father of Emil Novruzov, one of the young men in question.

Also on 4 July, the National Security Ministry refuted media reports that its operatives arrested 11 Wahhabis during a raid on a Baku mosque the previous day and are monitoring attendance at several other mosques.

In the wake of the July arrests, Azerbaijani Deputy Interior Minister Vilayat Eyubov was quoted by as saying that he does not believe the situation in Azerbaijan is conducive to the spread of Wahhabism. "I do not believe that they will be able to put down roots in Azerbaijan and attain their desired [objective]," he was quoted as saying. At the same time, Eyubov admitted that there is a constant flow of information about suspected Wahhabi sympathizers, and that information is systematically evaluated.

In contrast, popular Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu believes that Wahhabism does indeed pose a danger for Azerbaijan. Ibrahimoglu told that "it is no secret to anyone that radical Wahhabi groups have been active in Azerbaijan for several years," and that there is no indication of a weakening of that trend. Ibrahimoglu attributed the appeal of Wahhabism to the lack of democracy, frequent human rights violations, and the authorities' clumsy repression of less radical but unregistered religious communities. (Ibrahimoglu's own Djuma Mosque in Baku has been subjected to repeated pressure and harassment over the past two years.)

Parliament deputy Ramiz Akhmedov blamed the growing popularity of radical Islam on the "primitive, 19th-century" approach of the officially registered Muslim clergy that, he claimed, alienates believers and impels them to seek "pure Islam," reported on 18 January. Some, Akhmedov continued, opt for Shi'a Islam, some for Sunni Islam, and others for a third alternative that he did not name. Adherents of radical Islam then seek to take advantage of young believers' interest in studying the fundamentals of their faith. And supplying such knowledge has apparently become a major industry: Akhmedov pointed out that religious literature is freely available both in Baku and elsewhere, written in contemporary Azerbaijani and printed in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets.

According to on 4 August, Wahhabism has taken root above all in the northern and central districts of Azerbaijan, and in Baku. That geographical pattern suggest that Wahhabism first penetrated from Daghestan, which borders on Azerbaijan to the north. So-called Wahhabis in several remote villages challenged the Daghestani authorities in 1999, and the Russian media consistently blame Islamic fundamentalists for the almost daily terrorist bombings and killings in that republic.

The online daily similarly registered a strong Wahhabi presence in northern Azerbaijan, but in an article on 18 January entitled "The 'Wahhabization' of Azerbaijan is continuing," it claimed that there is also a Wahhabi presence in the south of the country. The same article listed other ways in which young Azerbaijani believers are exposed to radical Islam: when studying theology abroad, and while on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

Former Deputy National Security Minister Sulhaddin Akper enumerated various ways in which the Azerbaijani authorities could counter Wahhabi propaganda: by raising the level of religious education, screening more stringently applications from persons wishing to perform the hajj, and lodging a formal protest with the government of Saudi Arabia, which is perceived as an exporter of radical Islam. Akper said it is up to both the Foreign Ministry and Azerbaijan's official religious bodies to take appropriate action.

But according to the government's Committee for Work with Religious Formations Chairman Aliyev, the Board of Muslims of the Caucasus (UMK), instead of acting to avert the subversion of Islam in Azerbaijan by radical tendencies, is actively encouraging them. Aliyev claimed in mid-July that on two occasions within the previous three months, state customs officials have intercepted and confiscated consignments of radical Islamic literature addressed to the UMK. Aliyev said the first consignment of books weighed 14 tons and the second 10 tons.

But UMK officials claimed that the literature in question was in Arabic, Uzbek, and Kazakh, and was intended for shipment to Uzbekistan. They said the consignments were sent to Baku "by mistake." On 4 August, Caucasus Press quoted Aliyev as saying customs officials intercepted a further consignment of radical literature two days earlier, and that such shipments are sent to Azerbaijan via Turkey and Georgia.

Speaking at the 3 August conference on "Religion and National Security," Aliyev said that he thinks the recent arrests of "Wahhabis" were justified, according to on 4 August. He called for "serious" work to explain government policy to the leaders of religious communities in the run-up to the 6 November election.

See also:

From One Perspective, All Muslims Are Fundamentalists

The Dangers Of Cultural Transfer

Who Is A Wahhabi?