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Azerbaijan: Why Is 'Alternative' Islam Gaining Strength?

By Liz Fuller and Babek Bakir Friday Prayers in Baku (RFE/RL) August 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- With the eclipse of the political opposition in Azerbaijan, Islam is increasingly poised to fill the ideological vacuum.

Most government officials, however, deny that the increased interest in Islam poses a serious threat to either political stability or national security.

Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, many Azerbaijanis rejected communist ideology in the wake of the reprisals in Baku in January 1990 by Soviet troops that left at least 130 people dead.

But the pro-Turkish Azerbaijan Popular Front that took power in May 1992 failed to impose order on political chaos or reverse economic decline, and many people sighed with relief when a failed insurrection in June 1993 ended with the self exile of President Abulfaz Elchibey and the return to power of former Communist Party of Azerbaijan First Secretary Heidar Aliyev.

Aliyev restored order, signed a string of contracts with international oil companies, muzzled the media, and suppressed or coopted the opposition. But he failed to offer a vision of a new Azerbaijan that would appeal to the majority of a population demoralized by defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

In search of a sense of identity, or in some cases out of sheer intellectual curiosity, Azerbaijanis, especially the younger generation, are increasingly turning to Islam. Thousands of people flock every week to Friday Prayers at Baku's Abu-Bakr mosque.

Mushviq Shukyurov, who is 40 and teaches at a pedagogical institute in Sumqait, the industrial satellite north of Baku, told RFE/RL that he developed an interest in Islam after reading the works of 19th century Azerbaijani philosophers. He said that reading the Koran for the first time last year changed his life, and made him want "to seek for and serve the truth."

Shukyurov said that "many" of his students likewise show an interest in Islam, but that he fears some of them, lured by "false promises" made by either Saudi or Turkish missionaries, are following "a false path."


Shukyurov's misgivings highlight two parallel trends that partly account for the ongoing revival of interest in Islam: widespread ignorance resulting from the lack of any formal instruction in schools on the rudiments of religion, and the influx over the past 15 years of missionaries representing a multiplicity of Islamic, Christian, and other religious denominations.

Rafik Aliyev, who headed the State Committee for Religious Affairs from its founding in 2001 until the summer of 2006, told RFE/RL that interest in Islam is growing because there is no religious education.

Adil Hadjiev, another former official of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, says that for that reason, people are likely "to open their doors to the first missionary who knocks."

And there is no shortage of such hopeful proselytizers. Traditionally, most Azerbaijanis are Shi'ites, while a minority are Sunnis. The ratio is approximately 65 percent Shi'a and 35 percent Sunni, with Sunnis predominate in the northern regions of the country bordering on Daghestan, and Shi'ites more numerous in the south, especially districts bordering on Iran.

"A large share of the multi-million dollar profits that President Aliyev promised from Azerbaijan's Caspian oil revenues is being plowed into grandiose but useless projects."

But the Sunni share is gradually increasing, a trend that reflects, on the one hand, disillusion with and suspicion of Azerbaijan's "official" clergy who function under the Muslim Board of the Caucasus. That institution was first established in 1944 and its current head, Sheikh ul-Islam Allakhshukur Pasha-zade, has held his post since before the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, representatives of three distinct currents within Islam are actively recruiting new converts.

Those three competing schools are the Salafi/Wahhabi school as practiced in Saudi Arabia; Iran's brand of radical Shi'a Islam; and the moderate Hanafi school of Islam promoted by the Turkish NGO Nur (Light). But it is extremely difficult to estimate how many Azerbaijanis practice which form of Islam. Writing in the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" in April 2006, one Azerbaijani journalist estimated the number of followers of Wahhabi/Salafi Islam in Azerbaijan at approximately 25,000. The total number of mosques in Azerbaijan today is between 1,400-1,700 for a population of 8.5 million, compared with only 40 in late 1991.

Opposition Eclipse

Other factors too, both political and socioeconomic, drive many Azerbaijanis to seek in religion either consolation or a new meaning to their lives.

One factor is the eclipse of Azerbaijan's numerous opposition parties. Over the past 14 years, since the return to power of Heidar Aliyev, opposition parties have been constantly harassed by the authorities, evicted from their offices, denied access to state-controlled media, and refused permission to stage demonstrations in downtown Baku.

Opposition protests rarely attract many people (RFE/RL)

The pressure to which they are routinely subjected is so intense that there is less risk involved in attending prayers at a mosque than in joining a political party. In addition, opposition parties' constant rivalry and feuding and the reluctance of prominent opposition party leaders to set aside personal ambitions and join forces to create a united front have discredited them in the eyes of many people. The Azerbaijani authorities for their part have resorted to blatant rigging of all successive national elections, beginning in 1995.

A second, related factor is anger and resentment at the country's leadership, which has permitted a handful of close associates to monopolize virtually all spheres of economic activity. And a large share of the multi-million dollar profits that President Aliyev promised from Azerbaijan's Caspian oil revenues is being plowed into grandiose but useless projects, such as Olympic-standard sports stadiums in remote areas of the country, reserved for the use of a chosen few and off-limits to the rest of the population. Moreover, Azerbaijan is showing the first symptoms of "Dutch disease." Economists predict that inflation this year will reach 16 percent; steep rises in the price of gas, electricity, and gasoline earlier this year were met with widespread popular anger.

Historian Altai Goyushov is one of those who attribute the growing popularity of Islam to growing injustice, corruption, and economic problems. Goyushov believes that voters can no longer find within the opposition camp a force they can trust to represent their interests.

Role Of The West

And it is not just the Azerbaijani leadership that people feel betrayed by, but also the West, in particular the United States. Many Azerbaijanis, both ordinary citizens and some government officials, accuse the West of double standards. They point out that while the West proclaims its commitment to spreading democracy, it is guided more by mercantile interests, such as profiting from the exploitation of Azerbaijan's hydrocarbon wealth. For that reason, many people think, the West supported the Rose Revolution in Georgia in November 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in December 2004, but turned a blind eye to widespread falsification during the Azerbaijani presidential election in 2003 and the parliamentary ballot in 2005.

Former State Committee for Religious Affairs Chairman Aliyev argues that people have lost trust not only in pro-western Azerbaijani politicians, but in the West in general. "The West in its dealings with other countries takes into consideration first and foremost its own national, political, and economic interests, and it does not give people correct information. It would not be wrong to say that Western democracy has failed totally," Aliyev says.

Finally, Azerbaijani police and security forces sometimes indiscriminately target men who by their clothing and long beards can be identified as followers of Salafi/Wahhabi Islam. Hadji Gamet Suleymanov, imam of the popular Salafi/Wahhabi Abu-Bakr mosque, says that such brutal treatment can prove counterproductive.

"You know this serves only to fuel radicalization, and some radical forces can use this to win more supporters. We are also against crime, if someone has committed a crime we are against that, but if you are prosecuted only because you are a believer, this is not right," Suleymanov says.

In a recent interview with the online daily, Muslim Spiritual Board head Pasha-zade denied that there have been any "serious cases causing concern" in the religious sphere. At the same time, he claimed that the political opposition seeks to play the religious card, and he expressed clear dissatisfaction that the government authorities do not take a tougher stances against "Wahhabis." He said that the "Wahhabis," especially the congregation of the Abu Bakr mosque in Baku, enjoy special privileges that are not extended to any other religious group.

Headscarves are increasingly more common in Baku (RFE/RL)

Hidayat Orujev of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations said at a press conference in Baku on June 29 that "there are small groups in the country representing radical religious forces that think they can come to power. But the very idea is ridiculous." In contrast to Pasha-zade, Orujev said he considers the situation at the Abu-Bakr mosque "normal."

But the Azerbaijani authorities nonetheless keep a close watch over religious groups. Djeyhun Mamedov, who heads the Information and Analysis department of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, admits that the activities of religious groups are monitored to determine whether any of them break the law.

And Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry has in recent years announced the arrest of several "Wahhabi" groups suspected of planning terrorist acts.

Islam Izmayil, a former National Security Ministry official who now heads the Security Studies Center, believes that the government still controls the activities of various religious groups to a greater or lesser degree. He told RFE/RL he thinks the Azerbaijani government is portraying the upsurge of popular interest in religion to the West as a potential threat in order to justify its ongoing crackdown on both opposition activists and believers.

(Liz Fuller is an RFE/RL analyst; Babek Bakir is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service)

Who Speaks For Islam?

Who Speaks For Islam?

Young Muslims at a movie theater in Tehran (AFP file photo)

CROSS-CULTURAL DIALOGUE: On June 13, RFE/RL hosted a roundtable discussion entitled "Who Speaks For Islam?" The event was hosted by U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes and featured scholars of Islam from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 2 hours and 15 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


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