The controversy surrounding the Juma mosque community, led by Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, stretches back to March, when authorities first issued the eviction order. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A Baku appeals court upheld the eviction, [for additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive] but authorities took no action to enforce the order until June 30, when police surrounded the mosque and reportedly roughed up worshipers. At the same time, Allahshukur Pashazade, the head of the state-dominated Caucasus Muslim Board, announced that Surkhai Mamedov would replace Ibrahimoglu as the Juma community's imam.
Ibrahimoglu's followers continued to resist the eviction effort. On July 4-5, police clashed with worshipers who visited the mosque for evening prayers. Dozens suffered injuries and at least nine arrests were made during the incidents, according eyewitnesses. Some of the detainees were reportedly severely beaten in custody.
Members of the Juma mosque community maintain that the eviction action was politically motivated designed specifically to silence Ibrahimoglu, who has emerged as prominent critic of President Ilham Aliyev's incumbent administration. In practice, Ibrahimoglu has shown himself to be religious moderate, while aligning with Azerbaijan's political opposition. He also has been active in several human rights causes, including the International Religious Liberty Association, and has attracted religious followers for his willingness to operate outside of the official framework. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The eviction of worshipers from the mosque was aimed against me personally. Its purpose was to hinder my religious and human rights activity," Ibrahimoglu told EurasiaNet. He went on to say that authorities had threatened him with imprisonment if he did not immediately cease his rights advocacy activities. At present, Ibrahimoglu is on probation after having been convicted of encouraging rioting that followed Azerbaijan's disputed presidential election in October 2003. "No threats can force me to abandon my activity," he said.
Authorities have attempted to portray Ibrahimoglu as a religious radical who seeks to undermine political stability in Baku. Rafiq Aliyev, the head of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, for example, claimed that Ibrahimoglu had misused his religious position for political purposes. Meanwhile, officials at the Azerbaijani Ministry of Justice indicated that Ibrahimoglu's defiance was the main factor in the police decision to employ force in carrying out the eviction order. "We warned the Juma mosque community many times," said Justice Ministry official Hussein Alikhanov in a statement. "Our words were ignored and therefore we were compelled to do it (carry out the eviction) forcibly."
Worshipers at the Juma mosque scoffed the notion that Ibrahimoglu espoused radical Islamic ideas. "Haji Ilgar is more pro-Western than any other imam," said one member of the Juma mosque community, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The majority of his followers ... are well educated and more focused on the West than on the Arab world."
Rasim Musabekov, a political scientist in Baku, suggested Ibrahimoglu's maverick methods threatened the ability of the state-backed Islamic hierarchy, led by Pashazade, to retain its influence over believers in Azerbaijan. Ibrahimoglu, for example, attracted followers in part because he was willing to waive fees for performing religious services, including funeral rites. Many imams affiliated with the Caucasus Muslim Board have relied on such fees to maintain their activities.
Rather than compete with Ibrahimoglu, the religious establishment acted to stifle him, Musabekov claimed. "The basic interests of traditional [state-backed] clergy in the country are concentrated on raising funds from donations and the performance of religious rites," Musabekov said, adding that the Juma mosque's willingness not to follow established practices was a source of "irritation" for the Caucasus Muslim Board.
Elchin Askerov, a Baku-based political scientist who specializes in religious affairs, said authorities' treatment of Ibrahimoglu could alienate and potentially radicalize a significant number of believers in Azerbaijan. He added that the eviction crackdown had already served to bring practicing Muslims in Azerbaijan, including conservatives who had been disapproving of Ibrahimoglu's methods, closer together. Another political expert, Togrul Juvarly, said the eviction controversy may well end up boosting Ibrahimoglu's political and religious influence among Azerbaijani believers.
Human rights groups in Baku have denounced the government's use of force concerning the Juma mosque controversy. Such action "shows the strengthening of a police regime in the country and [poses] a serious threat to democracy and human rights," according to a statement issued by local human rights activists and published by the Turan news agency.
There are signs that that United States, which has been a key backer of Aliyev's administration, does not approve of the government's move against the Juma mosque. On July 5, US Ambassador Reno Harnish made an appearance at the mosque in an apparent expression of concern over recent developments. Meanwhile, US Representative Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican and chair of the US Helsinki Commission, issued a statement July 2 in which he assailed Azerbaijani authorities for using "Soviet-style" tactics. "These [eviction] actions represent a serious breach in Azerbaijan's human rights commitments and further tarnishes its international reputation," Smith said in the statement.
Shahin Abbasov is the deputy editor of Echo newspaper in Baku and Ilham Rzayev is newspapers political editor.