In a sign of religion’s growing influence in the South Caucasus, the founding of an organization to represent Georgia’s Muslim population has sparked an emotional face-off with the Soviet-era body for the region’s Muslims, the Baku-based Caucasus Muslim Board.
At about 9.9 percent of the population (c. 2002), Muslims make up Georgia’s second-largest religious group, after Georgian Orthodox Christians; most Georgian Muslims (about 300,000–400,000 people) are ethnic Azeris, but the community also includes ethnic Georgians from the Black Sea region of Achara, as well as Meskhetian Turks.
Since 1996, the Caucasus Muslim Board, a body set up in 1937 with semi-official links to the Azerbaijani government, has operated an office in Tbilisi, ostensibly to advocate the interests of Muslims in Georgia.
But in mid-May, an All-Georgia Muslim Administration appeared on the scene, promising to fulfill a similar function. Members elected a trio of men to run the organization -- Sheikh Vagip Akapilov, a Shi’ite Muslim; Mufti Jemal Parkhadze, a Sunni Muslim; and Tbilisi Juma Mosque Imam Iasin Aliyev.
In an interview with EurasiaNet.org, Allahshukur Pashazade, head of the Caucasus Muslim Board and Supreme Mufti of the Caucasus, described the All-Georgia Muslim Administration’s creation as “obviously a political step more than any other.”
Azerbaijani media routinely reports that the Georgian government itself set up the Muslim Administration. However, Georgian-language sources do not confirm this. In June, however, Georgia’s pro-government Rustavi-2 television channel featured a news report about a meeting involving Prime Minister Nika Gilauri, Sheikh Akapilov and Mufti Parkhadze, during which they reportedly discussed “relations and future plans.”
On the agenda that day was also the Georgian Muslim community’s “legal status,” a topic recently advanced by the country’s governing party, the United National Movement (UNM). On July 5, the Georgian parliament approved a set of amendments proposed by the UNM that granted “public law status” to the country’s Muslim community and four other religious minorities.
The change essentially upgraded the groups’ legal status to that which is held by Georgian government bodies; previously, religious minorities in Georgia enjoyed a legal status equivalent to that of non-governmental organizations.
Pashazade, who spoke with EurasiaNet.org before the July 5 vote, maintains that the Muslim Administration is a Georgian-government venture, and asked “why Muslims should be under such control,” when minority Christian groups have not received such attention. The group’s formation leaves it “unclear what role the CMB branch will play in Georgia,” he added.
Pashazade, who has run the CMB since the 1980s, took sharp issue with ethnic Azeris in the Georgian government for not opposing the Georgian organization’s creation. It “puts responsibility for further possible consequences on them,” he said.
Not all Azerbaijani Muslims share Pashazade’s sense of outrage. Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, head of DEVAM, a Baku-based religious rights’ defense group, links the decision to the Azerbaijani government’s allegedly “unprofessional and repressive religious policy.”
“As a result of this policy, the influence and popularity of the CMB in Azerbaijan has seriously declined,” Ibrahimoglu said, speaking in reference to popular anger at the closure of Baku mosques and an informal ban against the hijab in state-run schools and universities, among other issues. “When the CMB cannot ensure the rights of believers in its own country, how can it pretend to be efficient and respected in other countries like Georgia?”
One active senior member of the All-Georgia Muslim Administration maintains that the organization is “not an alternative to the CMB.” Huseyn Yusubov, the ethnic Azeri deputy governor of the Georgian region of Kvemo Kartli, the center of Georgia’s ethnic Azeri population, stressed that the group is intended only “to be a bridge between the Muslim community and the Georgian government.”
“There is no, and there will be no government interference into this organization’s activity,” Yusubov told Georgia’s Black Sea Press news agency on May 17. He added that he and other government officials had joined the organization only “as Muslims and believers.”
“The administration will exist on donations and will be involved, among others, in the renovation of mosques,” Yusubov said. Employing a standard Georgian government line of reasoning, he added that he did “not exclude” that Russia played a role in using the issue to stir up emotions, with the aim of weakening relations between Georgia and a close ally.
Pashadze maintained that the Muslim Administration’s formation is “incorrect,” and underlined that he will ask the Georgian government to “fix this problem.”
Azerbaijani government officials have avoided comment on the topic. Reports appearing in some Azerbaijani media outlets alleged that the issue could be raised during Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov’s June 13-14 trip to Tbilisi, but Georgian and Azerbaijani government statements about the talks did not indicate that.
Political analyst Elkhan Shahinoglu, head of Baku’s Atlas research center, rejected the notion that the All-Georgia Muslim Administration could cause problems for bilateral relations between the two countries. “Georgia and Azerbaijan are linked with strong economic and political ties and it is not going to change,” Shahinoglu said.
The issue, he added, is an internal matter for Georgia. “President Saakashvili’s government is trying to have an independent policy and wants to control Georgian Muslims itself, which is logical,” he said.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation – Azerbaijan. Additional reporting was added by Caucasus News Editor Elizabeth Owen in Tbilisi.