President Ilham Aliyev’s administration likes to cast Azerbaijan as a bastion of secularism. Yet, it’s a very bad time to be an atheist in Baku.
Radical Islam’s reach over Azerbaijani society keeps expanding, spreading a cloud of intolerance over the country. The latest sign of darkening skies is the decision of Agalar Mammadov, a professor at Khazar University and a leading Baku intellectual, to seek asylum in April in Sweden. Mammadov’s flight followed the murder late last year of another leading Azeri secularist, Rafig Tagi. Both developments are connected to Islamic radicals’ efforts to silence those who offer differing visions for how society should be organized.
Mammadov aroused the ire of radicals by initiating a letter in the wake of Tagi’s death -- who was presumably murdered by pro-Iranian extremists – that warned about the growing danger of violent Islamism. The letter was signed by 54 intellectuals. Subsequently, Mammadov came under public verbal attacks, and received several threats of bodily harm. With Tagi’s fate serving as an example, Mammadov opted to seek asylum. His case emphasizes a sad truth: Azerbaijani secularists feel increasingly squeezed between the state´s inability to protect their rights, Islamist intolerance and the indifference of society at large, including, with some exceptions, the political opposition.
The cases of Tagi and Mammadov testify to the fact that the political model represented by the Aliyev administration – call it secular authoritarianism – is actually ill-suited for protecting the rights of the non-religious. A freer, more democratic society would offer a safer haven for secularists, given that freedom of conscience is a key pillar of an open society.
But such freedom is not what Azerbaijani Islamists are seeking. They strive to impose their views on others. It’s worth noting that campaigners for the right of girls to wear hijabs in schools openly celebrated at the news of Mammadov´s forced departure. In addition to assailing him as an "Islamophobe" and "apostate" on the Internet, they accused him of fabricating his case in order to get asylum in Sweden.
The most disappointing aspect of the Mammadov case is the muted reaction of mainstream, supposedly liberal opposition leaders. Part of the explanation has to do with crude realpolitik. The mainstream political opposition appears to be seeking alliances with any kind of force that dislikes the Aliyev administration. The disaffection of conservative Muslim believers with the government, fuelled by the hijab dispute and by mosque closures, makes an alliance with radical Islamists seem both viable and attractive to opposition politicians.
Some secular oppositionists, perhaps influenced by the "Arab Spring," claim that fighting political Islam is counterproductive, and that Islamists should be integrated into democratic politics. However, ignoring or downplaying the authoritarian, illiberal tendencies within the Islamist camp undermines the opposition's own democratic credentials. Contrary to what some opposition figures may think, the Aliyev administration is not the only impediment to a liberal democracy in Azerbaijan.
Another reason for the opposition's acquiescence in the face of Islamism is the belief among some of its members that Islam somehow represents the 'essence' of the national cultural and spiritual values. However, this is a highly reductionist view of Azerbaijani culture. While most Azerbaijanis cherish Islam as part of their national identity, few are strictly observant. Still fewer want religion to play a dominant role in the society and the state. This is not merely the leftover from the official atheism of the Soviet period, but, more importantly, it is the legacy of the Azerbaijani secular intelligentsia of the beginnings of the 20th century, which paved the way for the establishment of the first secular, democratic republic in the Muslim world in Azerbaijan in 1918.
As Altay Goyushov argued in his essay on the Islamic revival in Azerbaijan back in 2008, the Islamists of today do not represent some historical, suppressed religion tradition that is trying to reasserting itself. The doctrine espoused by present-day Islamists comprises largely imported ideas, such as the Khomeinist version of Shiism, Saudi-inspired Salafism and Turkish missionary movements, such as Fethullah Gulen movement and Nakshbandi Sufi order.
In a typical example of reductionist thinking, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a Shiite cleric, claims that the veiling of women embodies the moral values of society. This assertion ignores the struggle of Azerbaijani women for equality and emancipation since at least the end of 19th century. A female figure shedding the veil graces one of the main squares in the downtown Baku. At the same time, outspoken secularist writers from the early 20th century, such as Mirza Fath-Ali Akhound-zadeh, Jalil Mammadgulu-zadeh, Mirza Alakbar Sabir, remain major cultural references in Azerbaijan today, and no religious figure can rival their status. Thus, it is not only politically misguided, it is morally wrong for the political opposition to refuse to confront Islamists over their intolerance. It also disconnects political opposition leaders from the free-thinking legacy of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia that the opposition claims to represent.
Aliyev’s administration is also playing with fire.
The atheists who have been the targets of Islamists’ attacks so far have tended to hold politically liberal views that are at odds with the Aliyev administration’s governing philosophy. Thus, authorities during these incidents of intolerance have treated Islamists as de facto allies, as if embracing the maxim “an enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But such passivity now could easily come back to haunt the government later. Currently, Islamists are no match for the government. But that could change over time.
One thing is for certain right now: Islamists resent, even loath Aliyev’s government. If left alone to increase their strength, once they snuff out the voices of secularism, it’s likely that Islamists at some point will set their sights on the government. And when that day comes, authorities may find they no longer can easily contain the threat.
Genuine secularism in Azerbaijan is not possible, if the right to non-belief is not as protected. The recent attacks against atheists, coupled with the lack of a proper response by the state and society, should set alarm bells off in the outside world.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament, who writes in his personal capacity.