When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many in the United States predicted that its Islamic former republics would become a battleground for influence between secular Turkey and Iran. Such fears proved misplaced, however, largely because Turkey was not in a position to provide the amounts of financial aid those republics hoped for, and because Iran was unable to overcome the linguistic and cultural barriers to successfully transplant its version of Shi'a Islam to traditionally Sunni Central Asia.
Azerbaijan, however, traditionally Shi'a, was a different story, and those few U.S. scholars and journalists who traveled there in the early 1990s reported the presence of considerable numbers of Iranian proselytizers. And indeed, for most of the 1990s, it was the Iranian brand of Shi'a Islam that was the main alternative to the "official" Islamic clergy subordinate to the
Soviet-era Muslim Spiritual Board of the Caucasus.
The main stronghold of radical Shi'a Islam in Azerbaijan is the village of Nardaran on the outskirts of Baku. Visitors are struck by the militant pro-Islamic graffiti, including quotations from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and such slogans as "Muslims must become the soldiers of Islam and they should defend Islam," "The world is waiting for justice. Justice is waiting for the Mehdi;" and "Red death is better than black life. Allah-u Akbar!"
The village, which has a population of some 8,000, gained notoriety in the summer of 2002 when months of unsuccessful protests by villagers against unemployment and the lack of elementary facilities such as mains gas and electricity culminated in a clash with police in which one villager was killed and some 20 injured, and four police cars destroyed.
Fifteen people were arrested in the wake of those clashes, including the head of the pro-Iran Islamic Party of Azerbaijan and a prominent cleric. Eight of them were sentenced in April 2003 to jail terms of between five and eight years on charges of participating in mass disturbances and resisting the police, but their sentences were suspended later that year and they were released.
Since then, despite a shooting incident in January 2006 in which a villager and two policemen were killed, the situation in Nardaran has remained largely quiet. But both the villagers' anger and resentment at the authorities and their commitment to their faith remains strong. One of the village elders, Hadji Ali Huseinzade, recently told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that even though five years have passed since the villagers' first protests, not all their grievances have been addressed. True, the authorities have laid on mains gas and electricity, but unemployment remains a pressing problem. In addition, villagers come under pressure to sell their plots of land to wealthy Baku bureaucrats who wish to build villas. Huseinzade said the villagers are becoming more and more religious, and he predicted that the future of Azerbaijan lies in the eventual victory of Islam.
The influence of Iranian Islam is also strong in the Lenkoran region in the far south of Azerbaijan bordering on Iran. As for the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, at a congress in mid-July its members reelected a new chairman, Movsum Samedov, who is 42, a generation younger than his predecessor Gadjiaga Nuri.
For that reason, Ibrahimoglu's congregation, as the daily zerkalo.az wrote on December 6, 2003, is very different from that of Nardaran: it includes many young people, and representatives of the educated middle class "who have studied philosophy, Western and oriental history, and who speak several foreign languages fluently." Those believers are apparently attracted by Ibrahimoglu's open criticism of the ruling regime.
Ibrahimoglu's open support for opposition candidate Isa Qambar in the October 2003 presidential election led to his arrest in early December 2003 on charges of involvement in the mass clashes in Baku between police and opposition supporters the day after the election, and he was given a five-year suspended sentence in April 2004. Meanwhile, police forced his congregation -- which had never formally registered with the authorities -- to vacate the Cuma mosque in Baku which it had used since 1992.
But by far the most popular center of alternative Islam in Baku is the Abu-Bakr Mosque, the construction of which was financed by the Kuwaiti foundation, Restoration of the Islamic Heritage, in 1997-1998. Between 7,000-10,000 worshippers, including some government officials, attend Friday Prayers at the Abu-Bakr mosque every week, and during religious festivals, the number can exceed 12,000.
The imam of the Abu-Bakr Mosque, Hadji Gamet Suleymanov, is in his mid-30s (the same age as Ibrahimoglu) and received his religious education in Saudi Arabia. In contrast to the Cuma congregation, that of the Abu-Bakr Mosque formally registered with the Justice Ministry (in 1998) and with the State Committee for Work with Religious Structures in 2002.
The Abu-Bakr Mosque appeals above all to the more disadvantaged members of society, such as the unemployed, and veterans of the Karabakh war. And in his sermons, Hadji Gamet focuses on poverty, corruption, and social injustice. But he rejects allegations that his community seeks to engage in politics or even aspires to political power. In an interview with day.az on July 21, he said "we do not intend to get involved in political processes in Azerbaijan. On the whole we are against religion expanding into politics."
The fact that many members of Suleymanov's congregation rigorously observe the requirement that believers should grow their beards long and wear above-the-ankle trousers has led critics to brand them as "Wahhabis."
Strictly speaking, that term refers to followers of the 17th century theologian Muhammed ibn Abdul Wahhab and, by extension, to the puritanical school of Islam currently practiced in Saudi Arabia. Russian media, however, use the term "Wahhabi" indiscriminately to designate any practicing Muslim who does not recognize the authority of the "official" state-supported clergy.
Even the Azerbaijani authorities disagree among themselves over the purported Wahhabi threat. State Committee for Work with Religious Structures head Orudjev was quoted by day.az on February 21 as saying that Wahhabism does not pose a threat to Azerbaijan. But the National Security Ministry claims to have identified and "neutralized" several Wahhabi groups in recent years. And Sheikh ul Islam Pasha-zade was quoted by zerkalo.az on July 12 as openly branding the congregation of the Abu-Bakr mosque as "Wahhabis" and as implicitly criticizing the Azerbaijani authorities for failing to crack down on them.
Ibrahimoglu too sees the Wahhabis as a threat: he was quoted by zerkalo.az two years ago as affirming that "it is no secret to anyone that radical Wahhabi groups have been active in Azerbaijan for several years." He attributed the appeal of radical Islam to the lack of genuine pluralism and democracy, human rights violations, and the authorities' clumsy repression of less radical alternative religious communities.
In recent months, there have been vague and unsubstantiated reports in the Azerbaijani media of tensions and even standoffs between representatives of different Islamic tendencies. How serious are those tensions? Zerkalo.az on April 28 quoted Hadji Gamet as downplaying such reports. And Hadji Sabir, the rector of Azerbaijan's Islamic university, pointed out that Shi'as and Sunnis have coexisted peacefully in Azerbaijan for centuries.
A second perceived danger highlighted by several experts, including Hadji Sabir, is that a group or groups in Azerbaijan could try to use Islam for political purposes. Gadji-aga Nuri, the former chairman of the pro-Iranian Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, was quoted by zerkalo.az on March 1 as saying that Islam in Azerbaijan is indeed becoming "a political lever," but he added that "at present we do not see a single charismatic leader" who could mobilize believers in the name of Islam.
But if the clan of incumbent President Ilham Aliyev continues to monopolize Azerbaijani politics, eclipsing the opposition, the gradual Islamization of politics over the next decade could become increasingly likely. Whether that process would duplicate the scenario of Iran in 1979 -- a resurgence of Shi'a extremism -- or of present day Iraq -- a struggle for power between Shi'a and Sunni groups -- or whether the various Islamic communities might make common cause to overthrow the country's leadership is impossible to predict at this juncture.
(Liz Fuller is an RFE/RL analyst; Babek Bakir is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service)
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