Azerbaijan: Why is "alternative" Islam gaining strength

EurasiaNet, NY
Aug 12 2007


Liz Fuller and Badek Bakir 8/12/07
A EurasiaNet Partner Post from 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


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.

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.

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.

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.

Editor’s Note: Liz Fuller is an RFE/RL analyst; Badek Bakir is a
correspondent for RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service