Devout Muslims have become increasingly assertive in Azerbaijan over the past year, as protests about an informal ban on hijabs in schools attest. But this growing assertiveness does not mean that Islamists are coalescing into an influential political force in Baku.
A couple of powerful factors are working against Islamists in Azerbaijan. For one, secular traditions are firmly entrenched. Perhaps more importantly, Islamists in Azerbaijan are deeply divided.
At present, three major Islamist groups can be observed: politically active Shi’as, who are inspired by the example of the Islamic Republic of Iran; Saudi-inspired Salafis, essentially modern-day Islamic puritans; and Turkish missionary groups, most notably the Fethullah Gülen movement. Seemingly unbridgeable political and theological differences separate these groups, and none of them is powerful enough to challenge the secular nature of Azerbaijani state and society on their own.
Azerbaijan is a nation where 65 percent of the population adheres to the Shi’a branch of Islam. Even so, a majority of the Azerbaijani population views politically active Shi’as with suspicion due to their close association with Iran. The overtly pro-Iranian Islamic Party of Azerbaijan operates on the margins of the country’s political spectrum, and public indifference to the arrest of its leader, Movsum Samedov, testified to the party’s negligible public appeal.
A different brand of Shi’a-inspired politics is represented by Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a charismatic former imam of the Juma mosque in Baku. Ibrahimoglu speaks the language of human rights, as well as religious duties. This has occasionally landed him in trouble with the authorities, but also has earned him the respect of many well-educated and upwardly mobile young Shi’as. Still, his appeal remains limited because of his ambiguity on women’s rights and his failure to condemn the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Iran. In addition, the website of his non-governmental organization, the Centre for Religious Freedom (DEVAMM), is filled with anti-Semitic propaganda. Given this background, political Shi’aism in its current forms is likely to have only limited appeal in the country.
Salafis are the most controversial of religious groups vying for influence in Azerbaijan today. With no historical roots in the country, funded mainly by Saudi money and favoring a literal interpretation of Islam, they have succeeded in converting a considerable number of people disillusioned with the traditional Shi’a clergy. Yet, their adherence to a puritanical brand of Islam puts them at odds with most of Azerbaijani society. In addition, their implacable doctrinal hostility towards Shi’as, whom they regard as heretics, prevents any cooperation with them.
Highlighting the mutual distrust between Salafis and Shi’as, the two groups hold diametrically opposed positions on some key domestic and international political issues. For example, political Shi’as are implacable critics of the President Ilham Aliyev’s administration, while Salafi leaders espouse loyalty to the established political order. An intensifying rivalry in the Persian Gulf between the Shi’as’ and Salafis’ main patrons, Iran and Saudi Arabia, will likely increase tension between the two groups in Azerbaijan.
In contrast to Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey over the past two decades has been seen in Azerbaijan as an acceptable face of Islam because of its secular system and its moderate Sunni Hanafi brand of Islam. However, with the rise in Turkey of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the concomitant weakening of the secular Kemalists, many in Baku have grown wary of the Turkish brand of Islam.
A network of schools operated by the Gülen movement helped promote Turkish-style Islam in Azerbaijan. But the Gülen movement’s image has taken a hit of late among Azerbaijan’s more educated, politically active citizens. That’s because Gülen-controlled media outlets remained silent about the recent clampdown on the freedom of expression in Baku, even though the movement professes to support democratization in Turkey. Some analysts also contend that the influence of a Sunni-based Turkish religious-nationalist movement inevitably has limited reach in a predominantly Shi’a, multi-ethnic country.
For the foreseeable future, the government’s most powerful opponent, in terms of maintaining the country’s present secular course, could be the government itself. Aliyev’s administration must take care not to become too overbearing in its policy choices.
The hijab issue offers a case in point. The government has the right idea of wanting to build a high wall separating religion and education. But it is going about it the wrong way. Instead of launching an informed public debate on the issue, as well as seeking a legal ban on religious symbols in schools, officials have opted for a heavy-handed approach, issuing oral instructions that barred headscarved girls from schools. And when some believers protested, they were beaten up and arrested by the police. This enabled the Islamists to claim a moral high ground by portraying themselves as fighters against religious persecution. The government’s emphasis on the use of forceful methods risks mobilizing Islamists, and exacerbating secular-religious tensions in Azerbaijan. Subtler policies could have prevented the hijab issue from gaining traction.
Even if the hijab issue keeps on stoking passions among believers, Azerbaijan does not face an imminent Islamist challenge. However, the government´s authoritarian, inept policies may end up inadvertently bolstering the Islamists and creating a problem over the medium- or long-term.
Eldar Mamedov graduated with a law degree from Latvia University. He worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia for about 10 years, including as a diplomat in the Latvian embassies in Washington and Madrid. Since 2007, he has worked as a foreign policy adviser for the Social Democrat group in the European Parliament. The view expressed in this commentary are Mamedov’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Parliament.