Two weeks after a surprise pro-hijab protest by scores of Muslim believers outside Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Education, authorities are still trying to figure out who organized the show of defiance.
Protesters on May 6, nearly all young men, called for the resignation of Education Minister Misir Mardanov over the informal ban on wearing hijabs in schools and universities. The demonstration culminated in a melee, with truncheon-wielding police battling protesters for about an hour before order could be restored.
It was the second unauthorized mass protest against Azerbaijan’s unofficial hijab policy since December 2010, when roughly 1,000 believers staged similar protests outside the ministry.
Forty-five so-called “radical believers” were arrested during the May 6 protest, according to Interior Ministry spokesperson Ekhsan Zahidov. Forty detainees were released the next morning, while the remaining five were jailed for 12-15 days on administrative charges of hooliganism, resisting arrest and disturbing public order.
Twenty-six policemen were allegedly injured during the confrontation; five were hospitalized. Journalists at the scene reported that scores of demonstrators, in turn, were beaten by police.
The General Prosecutor’s Office later issued a statement that authorities were working to “reveal and punish the organizers of this crime.” But, to date, officials have been unable to connect a group or politically oriented entity, such as the banned Islamic Party of Azerbaijan or the Center of Freedom of Religion (DEVAMM), to the protests. Demonstrators have told journalists that they attended the rally voluntarily and denied the existence of any organizing body.
The notion of a spontaneous protest is an unusual one in Azerbaijan, where demonstrators are often known to be youth activists or opposition party members and supporters.
The country’s only religious political party – the banned Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA), whose leader were arrested in early January – has denied that it had anything to do with the May 6 protest. “We also demand lifting the ban [on hijab in schools], but the IPA did not take any part in that protest of believers,” IPA Deputy Chairman Natig Kerimov told EurasiaNet.org.
Similarly, the DEVAMM center, led by imam and human rights defender Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, an outspoken government critic, also denied any organizational role in the May 6 event.
Attention, though, has lingered on the IPA. Since the end of March, the IPA has tried unsuccessfully to get government permission for a rally in Baku. So far, permission has been denied, even for an event on the city outskirts. The party has also requested a meeting with President Ilham Aliyev to “discuss the Karabakh conflict’s resolution and other problems;” no public response has been made.
Despite the party’s denials, pro-government political analyst Mubariz Akhmedoglu, president of the Center of Political Technologies and Innovations, believes the IPA, with the support of Iran, which is sympathetic to the group, “secretly” staged the protests.
Akhmedoglu’s assertion is disputed by other experts. Hikmet Hajizade -- president of FAR-Center, a non-governmental research group that has studied Islam-related topics -- says that with the social networking tools currently available to Azerbaijanis, including Twitter and Facebook, the idea of a spontaneous protest is plausible.
“In politics, it is called a self-organization mechanism,” Hajizade said, adding that SMS messages and email could have also been used to mobilize participants. “I think that the protest was organized by believers themselves, by the parents of girls who are not allowed to attend classes in hijab, by their friends and people who go to the same mosques with them,” Hajizade added.
Hajizade is skeptical that Iran, which is frequently suspected of meddling in Azerbaijan, would have helped organize the demonstration. “Of course, we could allege that some mysterious ayatollah or imam is behind it, or even that some Iranian spy gives orders to believers. But it would be cheap speculation for which there are no facts to support it,” he said.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance journalist based in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan.