Religion Emerges as an Issue for Some Parliamentary Candidates in Azerbaijan
By Jahan Aliyeva: 11/02/05

Religion and the treatment of Azerbaijan’s Islamic community are emerging as two controversial issues in Azerbaijan’s parliamentary election campaign. Members of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan are criticizing the Central Election Commission for disqualifying them as election candidates after they were improperly classified as “religious figures.” Meanwhile, at least on candidate representing the Azadlig opposition bloc says that the charge of religious extremism is being unfairly used for political reasons.

On October 21, the Constitutional Court decided to overturn earlier rulings by the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court and reinstate the candidacy of Hajiaga Nuri, chairman of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan. The Central Election Commission canceled Nuri’s registration on September 14. The official reason given was that the Islamic Party has not been registered as a political party since 1995.

But, with just 17 days remaining in the election campaign at the time of the decision, the party leader says that there is no opportunity left for him to get together a campaign.

If he loses the election in Baku’s #28 Sabunchu constituency, Nuri says that he plans to sue the Central Election Commission (CEC) in the European Human Rights Court for $1 million as compensation. “It’s a substantial loss [of time] for me as a candidate,” he said. “The CEC should compensate me if I do not win this election.”

Nuri takes particular issue with what he claims are official statements that described him as a “religious figure.” According to the Electoral Code, religious leaders are prohibited from running in parliamentary elections. The Constitution also stipulates that religion be kept separate from government and that “religious figures” not be either elected or appointed to governmental positions.

“Being a leader of the Islamic Party does not mean necessarily that I am a religious person and the name of my party does not relate directly to religious activity by the party. We are a political party” Nuri told EurasiaNet.

According to Rafig Aliyev, the chairman of the State Committee on Relations with Religious Organizations, the State Law on Freedom of Religious Faith says that only persons who associate with the Caucasus Muslim Board as a clergy member, and who receive a salary for their work can be classified as “religious figures.”

Although media outlets have depicted the party in the past as espousing fundamentalist Islamic beliefs, Nuri maintains that the Islamic Party supports democratic values and the promotion of civil society in Azerbaijan. The party’s “Islamic” title, he says, has nothing to do with religion. “We encourage people to be brothers to each other, to respect each other, as Islam requires. We call the party ‘Islamic’ because we want to encourage that respect. What’s important is how people respect each other as true Muslims.”

The district in which Nuri is campaigning is known as a bastion of conservative Islamic values, particularly in the village of Nardaran. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. As leader of the Islamic Party and a practicing Muslim, Nuri claims that he would be a strong competitor for any rival; a fact, he believes, that prompted the CEC to cancel his registration, and the Constitutional Court to reinstate it – in hopes that he would defeat Rauf Arifoglu, editor-in-chief of the opposition Yeni Musavat newspaper, who is running in the constituency for the opposition Azadlig bloc.

A CEC spokesperson declined to answer questions on this topic, and referred EurasiaNet to members of the Central Election Commission who could not be reached in time for publication of this story.

Nuri’s lawyer, Chingiz Guliyev, rejected his client’s allegation that political strategy had factored into the decision to renew his candidacy, instead hailing the Constitutional Court decision as a sign that the government “is making a step forward in democratization of the courts.”

The Islamic Party, which claims to have roughly 10,000 members, was established in 1991. The Justice Ministry canceled the party’s registration in 1995 after three members of the party, including the then-chairman, Haji Alikram Aliyev, were accused of spying for Iran. All three men were later pardoned by the late president Heidar Aliyev.

In 2000, the Islamic Party, along with three other political parties (Vehdet, Birlik and Popular Revival Parties) and six public organizations created the bloc of Pro-Azerbaijani Forces. The bloc is running 20 candidates for parliament in the November 6 parliamentary elections.

Several other members of the Pro-Azerbaijani Forces bloc have seen their candidacies invalidated by the CEC because of their classification by election officials as “religious figures.” One of the disqualified, Haji Vagif Abdullayev, a member of the Birlik (Unity) Party, complained that “there are no criteria to determine who is a ‘religious figure’ and who is not. Half of Azerbaijan is fasting [for Ramadan] and performing namaz [daily prayers]. Can we call them all religious persons?”

Allegations of religious extremism are being leveled not only against the Islamic Party. On October 27, a spokesman for the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP), Husein Pashayev, accused Azadlig candidate Naiman Gasimoglu of circulating books among voters which “propagate religious extremism,” the Turan news agency reported. Complaints have been filed with the CEC about this alleged violation of campaign rules.

Gasimoglu says that he was distributing books with his personal translation of the Koran. “There were no elements of religious extremism when I distributed my own book with translations from the holy Koran, but there are elements of black PR in the statements by YAP,” Gasimoglu said.
Rafig Aliyev, the state committee on religion chief, supported Gasimoglu’s claim that he had not engaged in extremist activity. “Everyone can distribute the holy Koran. It would have been considered extremism if Gasimoglu had called for jihad or [for something that would have sparked] religious tensions or called for a coup.”

In contradiction to the party’s spokesperson, YAP Deputy Executive Secretary Mubariz Gurbanli, agreed. While distributing the Koran was “inappropriate,” he said there may not have been any elements of religious extremism in Gasimoglu’s actions. “But it can be seen as a tool to realize political ambitions,” Gurbanli added.

Editor's Note: Jahan Aliyeva is a freelance journalist based in Baku.

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The interior of the Teze Pir mosque in central Baku. Although a predominently Muslim country, Azerbaijan is also strongly secular and religious life is less noticeable than in other Islamic countries. (Yigal Schleifer for Eurasianet)