An article recently published by an Azerbaijani bimonthly newspaper that disparaged Islam has sparked a religious furor both in Azerbaijan and neighboring Iran. An Iranian cleric exacerbated the controversy by issuing a fatwa, or religious order, for faithful Muslims to kill the two men behind the offending article's publication.
The article, published in the Sanat newspaper in early November, featured a comparison of European and Islamic traditions, and went on to claim that Islam had hindered the development of Azerbaijan and other Muslim states. President Ilham Aliyev's administration took quick action to contain the outrage that the article's publication produced among devout Muslims in Azerbaijan. Both the author of the story, Rafiq Tagi, and the newspaper's editor, Samir Sadagatoglu, found themselves facing criminal charges of inciting national, racial and religious enmity, and an Azerbaijani court ruled on November 15 that the pair could be held in pre-trial detention for up to two months.
The official response didn't satisfy conservative Muslims, especially in Nadaran, a town north of Baku that is considered a bastion of religious orthodoxy in Azerbaijan. Nadaran residents staged a November 17 protest, during which death threats were reportedly made against Tagi, Sadagatoglu and their respective families. The protesters complained officials were being too lenient, and called for a life sentence against the two, arguing that such a harsh sentence was needed to deter others from insulting Islam. The death threats prompted the Azerbaijani National Security and Interior ministries to take measures to protect the two journalists' families.
Within days, protests had spread to Azerbaijan's southern neighbor Iran. Groups of Iranian young people staged protests outside the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran demanding that the "provocateurs" be punished, the Turan news agency reported. Meanwhile, Iranian television reported that the protesters chanted slogans like, "Go and Ask Ilham to Protect Islam," and "Azerbaijan government: shame on you." The vehemence of the Iranian demonstrations appeared to take Azerbaijani officials by surprise. Hoping to prevent the Sanat controversy from creating bilateral friction, top government officials stressed that the Sanat article in no way reflected the thinking of Aliyev's administration.
"Relations between Azerbaijan and Iran are built on the basis of friendship," Ali Hassanov, head of the Social and Political Department of the presidential administration, was quoted as saying by the Trend news agency. "Media outlets in both countries [Azerbaijan and Iran] from time to time write this or that.
Mina Muradova and Khazri Bakinsky are freelance reporters based in Baku.