The recent death of writer Rafiq Tagi has sparked a fresh debate in Azerbaijan on three of the country’s most sensitive topics -- relations with Iran, the role of Islam and the government’s track record on freedom of speech.
Tagi, a 61-year-old essayist highly critical of Islam and Iran, was stabbed six times in downtown Baku on November 19 by an unknown assailant, and died four days later in a Baku hospital. In a hospital interview with RFE/RL shortly before his death, Tagi, who also worked as an emergency-room doctor, claimed that the attack was revenge by unidentified Iranian agents and Muslim fundamentalists for two of his articles.
In 2006, Tagi first fueled the anger of many Muslim believers with a strongly worded article in the Sanat (Arts) newspaper, a literary weekly. The article asserted that Islam and democracy are incompatible, and contained references perceived as critical of the Prophet Muhammad. In response, several Iranian ayatollahs issued fatwas that sentenced him to death. In 2007, Tagi and Sanat Editor-in-Chief Samir Sadagatoglu spent eight months in an Azerbaijani Ministry of National Security prison for allegedly having incited religious hatred by insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
But the fatwas and prison term did not stop his writings. In a November 10 blog piece for kulis.az, Tagi tackled Iran itself, charging that “[m]odern Iran is a myth that is easy to break.” He also questioned the sanity of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
That criticism, along with the earlier fatwas, prompted many Azerbaijanis to believe that Iran is a prime suspect in the attack on Tagi. Baku’s relations with Tehran have been tense in recent months.
A statement on the website of the late Iranian Ayatollah Fazil Lankarani, who issued one of the fatwas against Tagi, and signed by his son, Ayatollah Haji Sheykh Muhammad Javad Lankarani thanks God that “a hand of revenge was found among the honorable Muslims of Azerbaijan and sent the evil individual who insulted Islamic sanctuaries and Allah’s messenger to hell.”
Representatives at the Iranian Embassy in Baku denied any connection with the attack.
One expert on Islamic theology, though, dismisses the belief that the attack is linked to Ayatollah Lankarani’s fatwa. “Tagi was here for five years after that fatwa. He was walking to work and back, using public transportation, and nobody thought of implementing the sentence while Fazil Lankarani … was alive,” said Elchin Askerov, chair of the International Eurasian Council within the Islamic Youth Conference Forum for Cooperation and Dialogue, in an interview with RFE/RL’s Azeri service. Askerov similarly dismissed the notion that an Azerbaijani believer could have carried out the stabbing. “An Azerbaijani Muslim is not [a] backward, radical. We have to wait for the result of the investigation.”
State prosecutor’s office spokesperson Eldar Sultanov told reporters that his office is aware of Ayatollah Lankarani’s statement and will respond if necessary. Other details about the government’s investigation have not been released. Muslim community leaders in Baku have not commented publicly on Tagi’s death.
By keeping silent, government officials in Azerbaijan, always cautious in their relations with Tehran, risk inviting similar criticism for inaction, some observers believe.
Government critics blame law enforcement agencies for not providing protection for Tagi similar to what was offered by the British government to the Indian-British writer Salman Rushdie, who was condemned to death in a 1989 fatwa. “The government should have protected its citizen and arrested those who were calling for Rafiq Tagi’s death in Azerbaijan, and should demand international sanctions against those who were issuing fatwas abroad,” said Arastun Orujlu, director of the East-West Research Center.
Some critics have gone further, saying that the authorities will use Tagi’s apparent assassination as an excuse to tighten restrictions on practicing Muslims. Parliament recently adopted legislation that, among other measures, restricts sales of approved religious literature to official shops and imposes long-term prison sentences on those who sell or distribute unsanctioned religious writings.
“The whole world is discussing this assassination, except the Azerbaijani government,” said Intigam Aliyev, head of the Legal Enlightenment Center, a human rights organization, in a statement published by several Azerbaijani online and print media outlets. “The government’s silence is the answer. They are as silent as they were when [slain newspaper editor] Elmar [Huseynov] was killed, journalists were kidnapped and injured under car wheels, when people’s houses were destroyed.”
Two journalist advocacy groups, the New-York-City-based Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, have urged the Azerbaijani government to bring the perpetrator(s) to justice. The Azerbaijani government maintains it’s working on precisely that. In a November 25 interview to Media Forum, Ali Hasanov, the influential head of the presidential administration’s Political-Public-Policy Department, declined to “make any assessment” about the culprit’s identity. Instead, he urged patience. “The government is trying to solve all cases,” Hasanov said. “We don’t single this one out.”
Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance reporter in Baku and hosts a daily program on current affairs broadcast by the Azeri Service of RFE/RL.