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Azerbaijan: The Struggle To Shape Islam

Women praying in a Baku mosque (AFP) BAKU, October 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- You can tell a lot about the men at Abu Bakr Mosque by looking at their trousers.

The upwardly mobile among them wear designer jeans. The taxi drivers wear track pants. The office workers wear slacks and shiny shoes. What they have in common is how they wear them: Wahhabi-style, rolled up above the ankle -- just as the Prophet Muhammad did to keep the sand off his pants.

The Salafi mosque, perched high on a hill overlooking half-finished hulks of buildings and a labyrinth of streets in old Baku, has been called a "den of extremism" by some local officials concerned about an apparent rise in Islamic fundamentalism in a traditionally moderate Muslim nation of the South Caucasus. Those concerns were highlighted on October 29, when Azerbaijani officials said they had thwarted an Islamic terror plot to attack key facilities in Baku, including the embassies of the United States and Britain.

News of the foiled plot comes amid a wider crackdown against what officials call “Wahhabism” -- a catchall word they use to describe all militants, and not just those inspired by the radical brand of Sunni Islam imported from Saudi Arabia. Authorities have carried out many recent arrests of alleged militants, including rounding up men in streets and forcibly shaving their beards. Many of those arrested deny being extremists, saying they are persecuted simply because they oppose a corrupt, undemocratic regime.

Azerbaijan, with its vast gas and oil reserves the object of competition between Moscow and Washington, is at a crossroads, the shape of its religious landscape still undetermined, despite efforts from Saudi militants and neighbors like Iran to export their own brand of radical Islam. Will Baku go the way of some Muslim petro-states, whose repressive ways have spawned more of the very extremism they aim to stamp out? Or will Azerbaijan open up and democratize -- and in doing so, defuse some of the conditions that help drive thousands of young men to extremism across the Muslim world?

At Abu Bakr Mosque, and others around the country, an answer of sorts is taking shape.

The Abu Bakr Mosque stands as a living example of the convergent trends in religious life in today’s Azerbaijan: on the one hand, a resurgence in Islamic belief; on the other hand, increased state efforts to control religion. A few years ago, some 100 people would come to Friday Prayers at Abu Bakr. Now, the mosque's imam, Gamet Suleymanov, says that number is more like 7,000.

And despite accusations of "Wahhabism," the mosque remains open and fully registered with the state’s Muslim Board of the Caucasus. "Our relations with the government are very good," says Suleymanov. "We have a normal relationship with them because we don't preach propaganda here against the government."

Then again, Suleymanov is to a degree limited in what he can preach. Amid the crackdown and foiled plot, alternatives to the state-controlled Shi'ite faith are coming under intense scrutiny. That follows a trend begun at the turn of the millennium, when the government started placing more controls over religious life, only to subsequently intensify its efforts by using the U.S.-led "war on terror" as a justification for taking a harder line.

Resurgent Religious Life

It was not always so. With the ideological vacuum that followed the Soviet break-up, there was a resurgence of all varieties of Islamic belief in Azerbaijan. In the early 1990s, there was a laissez-faire attitude to religion; foreign groups, competing for the souls of Azerbaijanis, were often the catalyst to an awakening. Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Turkish foundations built mosques and madrasahs and sent missionaries. Iranian imams took up residence in Azerbaijani mosques. Today, the total number of mosques in Azerbaijan is between 1,400-1,700 for a population of 8.5 million. In 1991, there were only 40 in the entire country.

The majority of Azerbaijanis are Shi'ite, but there is a growing Sunni minority. Sunnis are the predominant group in the north of the country, especially in areas bordering the Russian republic of Daghestan. Neriman Qasimoglu, an Azerbaijani religious scholar, says that Azerbaijan did not have a tradition of centralized Islamic education -- and that left the country vulnerable to foreign influence. "Some religious circles from abroad -- from Iran, from Arab countries, from Turkey -- they thought that it was their duty to teach our Azerbaijani people Islam," Qasimoglu says. "They came with their ideas, with their interpretations of religion. We started to witness new Islamic tendencies that were never practiced here."

Many women on the streets of Baku dress in Western styles (RFE/RL)

On one end of the control spectrum, the authorities have increased the monitoring and managing of religious education. Madrasah curriculums are approved by the Muslim Board of the Caucasus. The authorities put pressure on "dissident" teachers, and madrasahs not registered with the state board face closure. Haji Geni, an imam in a madrasah in the southeastern town of Lankoran, says that in the 1990s he had a lot more freedom to teach what he wanted. That's different now. "The curriculum that we teach comes from the [board]. We’re not free to teach anything we want,” Geni says. "We do not teach any ideology. Personally, I am Shi'a, but we do not teach Shi'ism. We don’t divide Sunnism or Shi'ism. There are Shi'ite teachers and Sunni teachers here."

The picture the government and state-controlled religious groups paint is of tolerance and freedom of worship. Walking the streets of Baku, it appears a plausible interpretation. On the capital’s wide boulevards, bedecked with boutiques and high-end hotels, there are few outward displays of Islamic piety. Two women walk arm in arm, one with a hijab, the other in a tight-fitting top with Gucci emblazoned across it. Men sip beer or tea in cafes. In a park, couples cuddle quietly under the shadows of the fruit trees. Speak to your average citizen and she'll tell you the same: Azerbaijan is a tolerant place; extremism isn't in our mentality.

But talk to imams, madrasah directors, or religious teachers across Azerbaijan and you will also hear a different side of the story. Some of them express fear of being closed down, of losing state funding, or getting hassled by the authorities. Travel to the north, where female students wearing veils have reportedly not been allowed to attend classes, and a darker side of the government's spectrum of religious control soon emerges.

In recent weeks, the government announced special operations against "Wahhabi" groups in Zakatala and Qusar in northwestern Azerbaijan. In practice, this has meant local police stopping men on the street and ordering them to shave their beards. One man, a “Wahhabi,” told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that police stopped him on the street. "The police asked what kind of beard is this," he said, requesting that his name not be used. "One of them hit me from the left side. I lost my balance and fell unconscious. Then they lined us up and started setting fire to our beards with their cigarette lighters."

The Future Of Religious Control

The big question in Azerbaijan now is what method of control will prevail -- and how this will shape the future religious landscape in the energy-rich Caspian state. Much depends on the government, and whether the United States and European Union press it to open up political life or turn a blind eye to authoritarianism in order to secure the westward flow of Azerbaijani gas and oil.

But a lot also depends on Azerbaijani religious groups themselves and proselytizing foreign powers, such as Iran.

With an impotent and discredited opposition, a growing gap between rich and poor, and popular anger at the ruling elite for perceived corruption, Azerbaijan would seem to be rich ground for radical Islam to emerge as a political force. Eldar Mamazov, a former adviser to late President Heydar Aliyev, says political Islam is already getting stronger. "It is because of the authoritarian regime,” Mamazov said. “The government presses democracy, it presses the opposition. There is now a big gap in Azerbaijan and political Islam is trying to fill it.”

But Islamic parties have failed badly in past parliamentary elections. And many Islamic leaders, like Suleymanov, say they want to stay out of politics. The Abu Bakr imam says he has no faith in political groups, believing they can achieve nothing good for the country. It is that lack of faith in politics that, paradoxically, could turn Islam into a political force. Many in Azerbaijan see Islam as a strong moral presence, unsullied by the country's farcical and futile politics.

In downtown Baku’s Shi'a Juma Mosque, Ilqar Ibrahimoglu sits beneath a chart explaining the daily prayers of Ramadan. Bearded, with a soft, insistent voice, he is the type of Islamic leader the authorities fear. An moderate imam and a civil rights campaigner who preaches a potent mix of Islamic and Western democratic ideas, Ibrahimoglu is seen by many to be a strong moral voice. "Human rights and freedoms are not a gift, so in Azerbaijan all people struggle for their rights," he says. "The situation with regard to religious freedom in Azerbaijan is the same as the situation regarding freedom of speech, freedom of elections, and other human rights."

Ibrahimoglu talks about the marriage of Islamic and European values, his speech often peppered with references to Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. The government, he says, exaggerates the threat of Islamic extremism, to clamp down on dissent. He says economic liberalization will lead to enlightenment and to the development of civil society. The development of the Internet in Azerbaijan, the imam says, will bring the country huge benefits, because people will be able to bypass government censorship.

While Ibrahimoglu has no interest in politics now, he doesn’t rule it out in the future. Europe has Christian democratic parties, he says, so why not have democratic Muslim parties in Azerbaijan, such as the ruling Justice and Democracy party in Turkey?

What perhaps the authorities fear more is not Ibrahimoglu's vision of a moderate Islam, but the export of Iran's radical, political version of Shi'a Islam.

Can Azerbaijan's historically moderate Islam survive? (RFE/RL)

Only a few kilometers from the Iranian border, the southeastern town of Lankoran has close ties with Iran. The people in Lankoran are mainly Talysh, linguistically and ethnically similar to Persians. Many have relatives living across the border in what Azerbaijanis call "southern Azerbaijan," the northern region of Iran predominantly populated by ethnic Azeris.

In the local municipal building, a new construction of glass and steel, Alimardan Aliyev, the mayor's spokesman, sits in front of a portrait of the late Heydar Aliyev, whose son Ilham has taken a hard line on political dissidents since taking over for his ailing father in October 2003. "This region doesn’t have a problem with extremism, especially Iranian-sponsored extremism," he says. "You won’t find an Iranian speaking in our mosques."

He reaches into his desk drawer and pulls out two small books. "Everything is controlled by this," he says. "They are the guidelines for Islam preached in mosques, produced by the Muslim Board of the Caucasus." And if an imam from Iran started preaching in a Lankoran mosque? He would go down there personally and sort him out, he says.

Iranian Ideological Imports

But Yadigar Sadigov, the local head of the opposition party Musavat, doesn't agree with the mayor's spokesman. Islam -- the radical Iranian version, that is -- is making plenty of inroads into religious life in Lankoran, says Sadigov, who also teaches history at the local university. Iran broadcasts religious programs in the Azeri language aimed at "northern Azerbaijan," he notes. And the local bookshops are full of ideological works from Iran.

So Azerbaijan stands at a crossroads. Which way forward for religious life? "Either equal rights for all people and for all believers," Ibrahimoglu says. "Or the second way, the marginalization and radicalization of believers. And the whole world has seen the end result of this."

Even with the foiled terror plot in Baku this week, such a scenario seems unlikely -- for now. For his part, the religious scholar, Qasimoglu, doesn’t believe that political Islam has much of a future in Azerbaijan. "The intelligentsia, the Azerbaijani mentality, the secular opposition, the government will prevent this," he says.

But others say that if the economic situation worsens in Azerbaijan, and people grow even more disillusioned with their lack of political expression, radicalism may be seen as the only alternative -- particularly when fueled by neighboring powers like Iran. Jonathan Henick, the public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baku, says the best path for Azerbaijan is democratization. "If you have the conditions for the free exchange of ideas, then what will emerge here is a very moderate version of Islam,” Henick says.

In some ways, it’s already here. But can it last?

Earlier this month, on Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, Sunni and Shi'a prayed and gave alms together at a mosque in downtown Baku. It’s one of the few places in the Muslim world where members of Islam’s two main branches come together. Men and women, separated by a thick curtain, sat in groups on a carpeted floor. The muffled sound of their praying was broken up only by the ring of an ancient telephone that was never answered.

Around the same time, 45 kilometers away in Nardaran, a village with strong Shi'ite traditions, old women in Iranian-style chadors walked solemnly arm in arm to a huge sandstone mosque, which looks out over the marble-blue Caspian Sea. Outside the mosque, their menfolk are surprised to hear that back in Baku, Sunni and Shi'ite believers are praying together. "It is not even Eid yet," they say, betraying a little outrage, but not surprised. "We will wait until we see the moon with our own eyes."

(Shehla Sultanova and Ilkin Mammadov from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report)

Islam In The North Caucasus

Islam In The North Caucasus
Madrasah students in Khasavyurt, Daghestan (RFE/RL file photo)

SIMMERING TENSIONS: Fatima Tlisova, former North Caucasus editor for the Regnum news agency and a former North Caucasus-based freelancer for RFE/RL, AP, and others, told an RFE/RL briefing that the Russian government is cracking down hard on mosques and Islamic organizations throughout the region.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 70 minutes):
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