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Azerbaijan

By:
Audrey L. Altstadt
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Azerbaijan

Situated on the Caspian Sea between Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Iran, Azerbaijan gained independence from the failing USSR in 1991. Its population, estimated at just over 8 million in 2007, is almost entirely Muslim, roughly 75 percent of them Shīʿah. Although the country is a secular republic, religious leaders have played significant roles in the country's recent history. The head of the ecclesiastical board, Shaykh al-Islām Allahshukur Pashazade, came to prominence in 1990 for speaking out against Russian repression of the nationalist movement. He subsequently played a lesser political role, though he cultivated relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. He participated in the presidential inauguration of Azerbaijan Popular Front leader Abulfez Elchibey in June 1992. Elchibey included kissing the Qurʿān in the ceremony. One year later, in a coup in June 1993, a former communist leader returned to power. Pashazade appeared at the inauguration ceremony of Heydar Aliyev, former Communist Party first secretary, as president. Pashazade remained a supporter of Heydar Aliyev's regime and that of his son and successor Ilham from his election in October 2003. Because of his consistent support of the Aliyev family, Pashazade lost much of the credibility he had gained during his activism with the opposition Popular Front movement.

Religious parties were tiny and few, and religion had played no role in political mobilization in the first years after the Soviet collapse. Elchibey's government had pledged itself to religious freedom and other civil liberties, and the separation of church from state. In keeping with the secular tradition of Soviet-era Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev made no changes in laws regarding religion. Yet independence allowed the country to rebuild its religious infrastructure.

Foreign Influence.

Iran and Turkey, as well as independent religious groups from Turkey, helped to build mosques and schools in Azerbaijan. Observers inside Azerbaijan report that more than a hundred small mosques were built with Iranian money in villages throughout the countryside. These mosques were staffed mainly by Iranian-trained mullahs. This may give rise to a generation of Azerbaijanis under greater Iranian influence than has been experienced since the nineteenth century.

Investment by the Turkish government has been mainly secular and shaped by the ethnic bond between Turkey and Azerbaijan. The Turkish government funded several secular schools in Baku and one small but ornate mosque near the cemetery called Shahid Khiyabani (Martyrs’ Lane, on the hill overlooking the bay of Baku) for those killed in the Karabakh conflict with Armenia. There have also been reports of influence by conservative Turkish religious movements, but there is little research on this matter.

Islamic Activism.

There is, however, some evidence of the rise of political Islam, dating from demonstrations around the village of Nardaran, just outside the capital, Baku, in the summer of 2002. The village was known for its conservative religious character, but religion had not been used politically before this incident. Villagers demanded fulfillment of promises made by the government in 2000 to supply gas and electricity to their village. When Baku police came to suppress the demonstrations, the villagers used Islamic symbols and rhetoric to denounce the regime. Aliyev's regime exacerbated the problem with its unwillingness to participate in talks, release arrested elders, or improve basic services. The government increased its use of force to include arrests, shooting into unarmed crowds, and the like, all the while claiming that the unrest was linked to international Islamic groups and “Islamic fundamentalism.” The demonstrations were suppressed. Local commentators raised the specter of a population frustrated by lack of services despite the country's petroleum wealth, becoming more radical and turning to the seemingly successful Islamic movements as a source of inspiration, if not outright support, to advance their demands.

Islamic activism is also evident in the movement which originated at Baku's Juma mosque in the Old City, which had been turned into a carpet museum by communist authorities in the 1920s. Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu fought for its restoration as a mosque and became its imam in 2002, at about age thirty. His background as a journalist and human-rights activist tends to be stressed by the Western press, but he was trained for five years in Iran's religious center Qom. His use of legal arguments and international human-rights norms distinguishes him and his generation from the older cohort that matured in a stronger Soviet Union. He has been prosecuted for his political activism, and the Juma mosque was closed down for alleged extremism in 2004.

Haji Ilgar defends freedom of religion as a basic human right. He is the founder and director of the Religious Faith and Freedom of Conscience Defense Center (Dini Etiqad ve Vijdan Azadliqlarin Mudafiyesi Merkezi). It has a website (www.deyerler.org) and a journal Deyerler/Tsennosti (Values) which is written half in Azerbaijani and half in Russian. In the July 2005 issue (its second), the lead article addressed the closing of the Juma mosque a year earlier. Ibrahimoglu stressed in that article the benign character of his congregation: “The majority has a higher education…. There was no hatred, there was an atmosphere of love of people. There was a respectful approach to those who think differently. Social projects were being carried out.” Moreover, the preaching from the pulpit, he said, invited people to civility, decency, love of humanity, and the ideals and values of God. At the same time, the message of Deyerler/Tsennosti is socially conservative, idealizing traditional roles for women and the wearing of the hijāb (headscarf). Ibrahimoglu wrote that his congregation has three thousand members, as many as secular Azerbaijani parties like the Popular Front.

Growth of Radicalism.

There have been some hints of more radical political Islam. In the spring of 2007, two Baku journalists were put on trial for “insulting Islam” because of an article they wrote comparing Islam to Christianity and arguing that Christianity had coped more successfully with various historical challenges. A group of Islamist demonstrators was reported to have been shouting down defense attorneys in the courtroom; some shouted “Allāh akbar ” (God is great), for which they received stiff sentences. The court's tolerance of such outbursts in the court room, followed by harsh sentences, suggests that the regime of Ilham Aliyev is prepared either to tolerate or to manipulate Islamist sentiments in the political arena. It may even be exaggerating them in order to quash opposition.

Indeed, the regime may be encouraging political Islam by its consistent repression of the weak and fragmented democratic opposition. Since the overthrow of President Elchibey in summer 1993, no election in Azerbaijan has been deemed “free and fair” by international monitors. Under Ilham Aliyev, there has been greater repression of opposition parties, newspapers, and journalists. Western support for leaders elected under these conditions contributes to public disillusionment with democratic politics, which seem to bring no gains, even though the export of oil creates pockets of conspicuous wealth in Baku. Growing gaps between rich and poor and between urban and rural may create more fertile ground for appeals to action, whether religious or secular.

Bibliography

  • Altstadt, Audrey L.Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity Under Russian Rule. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 1992. History of Azerbaijan from the Russian conquest to 1991, including religion and religious policies.
  • Altstadt, Audrey L.“The Forgotten Factor: Shīʿī Mullahs of Pre-War Baku.” In Passé turco-tatar, présent soviétique (Turco-Tatar Past, Soviet Present), edited by Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay, Gilles Veinstein, and S. Enders Wimbush. Louvain: Editions Peeters; Paris: Editions de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 1986. Provides detail on Russian imperial ecclesiastical boards and the economic position of mullahs.
  • Atkin, Muriel. Russia and Iran, 1780–1828. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980. Includes coverage of the religious repressions that accompanied Russian conquest.
  • Bennigsen, Alexandre, and Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay. Islam in the Soviet Union. Translated by Geoffrey E.Wheeler and Hubert Evans. London: Pall Mall Press, 1964. Historical overview of czarist and Soviet times.
  • Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush. Mystics and Commissars: Sufism in the Soviet Union. London: Hurst, 1985. Includes information on pilgrimage places in Azerbaijan.
  • Khadzhibeili, Dzheikhun ( Jeyhun Hajibeyli). Antiislamskaia Propaganda i ee Metody v Azerbaidzhane. Munich, 1957. The only comprehensive treatment of antireligious propaganda in Azerbaijan.
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