A topic that has not received the attention it deserves during Azerbaijan’s presidential election campaign is the role of Islam in society.
President Ilham Aliyev is currently trying to have it both ways, embracing Islam when it suits his administration’s political purposes, while playing the extremist card against any believer who is not in lockstep with his agenda.
Azerbaijan for much of the post-Soviet era, especially during Heidar Aliyev’s tenure in power, embraced a staunchly secular outlook. But Ilham Aliyev – Heidar’s son and political heir – lately has been denouncing unspecified “Islamophobic forces” that, along with the so-called Armenian lobby, are supposedly conducting a “dirty campaign” to tarnish Azerbaijan’s image. Taking a cue from his boss, Ali Hasanov, a top presidential aide, recently announced that Azerbaijan will allocate funds to promote “Islamic morality and to fight Islamophobia.” Hasanov also claimed that “governance in most Islamic countries is better than in Europe.”
Even though top governmental figures now profess to tolerate, if not champion Islamic values, Azerbaijan faces consistent criticism from both domestic and foreign human rights defenders over its heavy-handed dealings with its own conservative Islamic believers. The list of concerns includes regular arrests and ill-treatment of religiously inspired activists, the closure of mosques, the prohibition of wearing the hijab in schools, strict control of religious literature and restrictions placed on independent religious communities. For instance, a Human Rights Watch report recently identified three Islamic activists who were arrested on trumped-up charges and ill-treated by authorities for peacefully expressing their views – Taleh Bagirov, a popular Shi’a cleric, along with Araz Guliyev and Nijat Aliyev, journalists of Islamist-oriented websites.
While the administration’s stance might seem contradictory at first glance, it has a logic of its own: Aliyev is ready to embrace any policy that strengthens his administration. At the same time, he is ready to quash whatever smacks of independent civic activism, be it secular or religious. The regime is neither for secularism nor for Islam; it stands for self-perpetuation. As a result, it is for everything that strengthens its control over society and against anything that might erode it. Both Islam and secularism are instrumental to this overriding goal.
The rapid increase in the number of Muslim believers in Azerbaijan makes the Aliyev administration conscious of the need to curry favor with them. Hence it tries to burnish its Islamic credentials by presenting itself as a defender of Islamic values. Conversely, it tries to paint the opposition as a bunch of depraved, rootless cosmopolitans. This has also an international dimension: allocating funds for Islamic causes or sponsoring events, such as the Islamic solidarity games, is a diplomatic investment in relations with influential Muslim countries, including Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
But there are limits to this policy. Once Islamic-inspired activism surpasses the boundaries drawn by the state and includes broader concerns, such as social justice, corruption and the lack of individual freedoms, the government is quick to take a secular tack and take action to neutralize what it portrays as Islamic extremism.
As in the case with cultivating the support of Azerbaijani Muslims, this strategy also has its internal and external dimensions. The regime is trying to scare local secularists into supporting Aliyev’s administration by portraying the opposition as too pro-Islamic. Some Islamists indeed side with the opposition, but mostly because Aliyev’s own policies are seen by them as anti-religious. Externally, the regime still presents itself as a beacon of secularism in the Muslim world, especially to its Western partners, in part to divert criticisms over poor governance and human rights abuses.
The Aliyev administration’s attempt to manipulate Islam and secularism is a dangerous game. The threat that Azerbaijan faces from Islamic fundamentalists – espousing extreme versions of ideologies rooted in either Iran or Saudi Arabia – is real. But while the government has repressed Shi’a-inspired political activism, it has tolerated the expansion of the far more socially conservative, Saudi-based Salafist ideology. What explains the difference is the fact that Shi’as have challenged the Aliyev administration, while Salafis have gone out of their way to demonstrate loyalty to the ruler.
Presently, Islamists are no threat to Aliyev’s administration. But the policy of both appeasement and repression of Islamists can, with time, embolden them to challenge the government itself. One can only hope that, if that point is reached, Azerbaijani secular liberals will turn out to be smarter than their Egyptian colleagues, and will be able to prevent the regime from using the Islamist threat as an excuse to perpetuate itself in power.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament, who writes in his personal capacity.