Azerbaijan: Islamic threat to religious harmony

Sergei Markedonov
2 June 2008

The crisis in Russo-Georgian relations has detracted attention from a significant threat to religious harmony in neighboring Azerbaijan.

A trial of Al-Qaida fighters charged with the formation of an armed terrorist group came to court at the end of May. The group, which included 18 people, including a Saudi citizen called Nail Abdul Kerim al-Bedewi, known as Abu-Jafar. In October of last year Azerbaijan's Ministry of National Security reported that action had been taken to prevent a number of terrorist acts planned by Islamic groups against the state, as well as the US embassy in Azerbaijan. The US State Department's representative Sean McCormack, confirming this, also said he considered Azerbaijan-American cooperation on security to be effective. As a result, the US and UK restricted the work of their embassies in Baku. The following month, Azerbaijan's Ministry of National Security reported that a special operation had led to the arrest of religious extremists headed by Abu-Jafar, the Saudi citizen now on trial.

"The Wahhabi virus has developed here over the last several years," as the human rights lawyer Ilgar Ibragimoglu put it. "News of Al-Qaida's plans to recruit Azerbaijani women as suicide bombers was our worst discovery in recent years,' Azerbaijan's Minister for National Security Eldar Makhmudov announced in April 2006. ‘This group has now been neutralized.' The minister said that attempts by Islamic radical groups to change the secular nature of the Azerbaijan state were on the increase.

They used to joke in Baku that not even Osama Bin Laden would be able to persuade Azerbaijani women to take the veil. While Aliev was still in power, the head of the Religious board of Azerbaijan Muslims Sheikh-ul-islam Allashukur Pashazade even said that there was a God and prophet in Baku, and his name was Heydar Aliev. From an Islamic point of view, this was blasphemous, as it is a fundamental tenet of Islam that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed, not Aliev Sr, is his prophet. But a statement, which would have led to mass protests in Muslim countries in the Middle East or Central Asia passed unnoticed in Azerbaijan.

Why the rise in fundamentalism?

However, radical Islam is on the rise in Azerbajan, for a number of reasons. The national trauma of the loss of sovereignty over Karabakh and the seven regions around it has been a serious contributory factor. The country lost 13% of its territory. The Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict also has a religious dimension. For the Christian Armenians have their own national church, and this Armenian Apostolic Church, a quasi state organisaiton, has been the rallying point for the Armenian diaspora.

The country's common borders with Dagestan and Iran further complicate the situation. Dagestan has become the centre of Salafism in the Caucasus region, while the Shiite state of Iran exports the Islamic model of the state.

Finally, there is the political dimension. Popular dissatisfaction with government has no outlet. The secular opposition is weak, demoralised and politically ineffective. The authoritarian project of modernisation which the country has undergone in recent years has been accompanied by harsh social stratification, corruption and a change in traditional lifestyle.

All this has taken place against a background of widespread disappointment with the USA and the West in general. In the early to mid 1990's many people in Azerbaijan believed that the US and European Union would be able to help Baku resolve the Karabakh problem to their advantage. However, the failure of the negotiations led by western nations has given rise to a more cautious attitude and even to fairly widespread hostility to American and European policies.

The tradition of a secular state


None the less, the secular tradition has strong historical roots. In the first Azerbaijan state (1918-1920), the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR), power was held by secular ethno-nationalists - the Musavat (Equality) party. This was the party that formed the values of Azerbaijan statehood to which the current post-Soviet elite aspires. However, this does not stop Ilham Aliev from putting severe pressure on the current Musavat party, which is in the opposition.

During the existence of the ADR, the Islamic party Ittihad (Union) did not just advocate traditional Islamic legal norms. It denied the idea of a national state, calling for the union of all Muslims of the former Russian Empire. In their struggle with the Musavat party, Ittihad supporters even approved of the establishment of Soviet power in the republic. Thus, historic Islamic ideology in Azerbaijan has "anti-state" roots. The idea of national statehood was associated with secularism and anti-clericalism. Although no judgment is implied, it should be noted that this tendency was also influenced by the Soviet atheist tradition followed by Heydar Aliev, among others.

In the post-Soviet period, Turkey has become Azerbaijan's strategic partner. Although the majority of its believers are Muslim, Turkey remains a secular state. It was secular Turkey and not Shiite Iran that supported Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue, as it did also in the blockade carried out against Armenia.

Post-Soviet Azerbaijan has not only shown itself to be hostile to radical extremism. It has also been fairly flexible in its attitude to different religions, ranging from Orthodox to Protestant. This experience might have proved useful for those CIS nations which are made up of various religions. But as we can see, a skilful religious policy has not proved enough.


Who worships what?

As the statistics indicated, independent Azerbaijan became more or less homogenous in its religious affiliations, compared to the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Then, only 87% of citizens were Muslims (60% of them Shiites), 12.5% Christians (mainly Russians and Armenians) and 0.5% Jews. Today, however around 97% of the population is Muslim. Besides Azerbaijanis, Islam is also practiced by the Lezgins, Talysh and Avar minorities. And since 1991 some religious communities have appeared which were not there before. These are mainly so-called non-traditional Christian groups like the Church of Praise.

Azerbaijan's secular status is enshrined in Article 7 of its Constitution: ‘The Azerbaijan state is a democratic, legally secular, unitary republic.' Article 18 declares the separation of religion from the state and the equality of all religions before the law. Article 48 declares freedom of conscience.

In 1992, the parliament of the republic (Milli mejlis) passed the "Law on freedom of religious belief" of Azerbaijan. Two years later, several amendments were passed which targeted foreign religious missionaries. Foreign citizens were banned from conducting religious propaganda on the territory of Azerbaijan. These amendments were made because of fears of radical Islamic opinions. Between 1991-1993, missionaries from Jordan, Pakistan and even Afghanistan were working in the republic. The state's religious policy is determined by a special State committee, which was founded in 2001. The committee is empowered to register religious groups.


In 1991, Azerbaijan became a member of the influential Organization of the Islamic Conference. Today, Shiites form the majority in the country, and there are also Shafi'i and Hanafi Sunnis. In Islamic countries, Shiites usually constitute the minority. Azerbaijan, along with Iran, Iraq and North Yemen, is an exception.

In the post-Soviet period, Salafi views also spread among citizens of the republic. Azerbaijan experts link the spread of Salafi with the Chechens who settled in the republic in the mid-1990s, and also the ethnic minorities (Lezgins, Avars). The reason why Salafi views have become popular among these minorities is that they have no representation in government.

As for the Christian community in Azerbijan, parishes of the Baku and Caspian eparchy of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate also function on the territory of Azerbaijan. This eparchy was founded in 1998. The creation of the eparchy was welcomed by the leader of the South Caucasus religious association of Muslims (Sheikh-ul-islam Allshukur Pashazade). In 1999, Bishop Alexander was received at the presidential palace by Heydar Aliev. Relations between the eparchy and the state of Azerbaijan are mainly constructive.

In 2003, the Albano-Udi Christians group was registered in Azerbaijan. The Udi are an ethnic minority of the country (4,200 people according to the 1999 census), and considered to be the descendents of the ancient Albanian tribe of Utik. The Udi are close to Armenian Gregorian Christianity. In 2002, Pope John Paul II made an official visit to Azerbaijan. His visit was used by the Azerbaijan authorities for their own propaganda purposes. The $100,000 which the pontiff gave for refugees was announced as funds ‘for the victims of Armenian aggression.'

In the 1990s, Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses also became active in Azerbaijan. According to unofficial statistics, around 5,000 Azerbaijanis have converted to Christianity under the influence of such Christian missionaries.

There is also a small Hare Krishna group in Baku. A Baha'i mahfal (gathering place) was also re-opened in the Azerbaijan capital, after being closed in the repressions of 1937.

Azerbaijan has, in short, chosen stability over purity of religion. It has demonstrated its adherence to secular principles, and its ability to conduct dialogue with different religions. However, because of its ‘managed democracy', and the social problems of modern Azerbaijan, radical Islam will remain a problem. It will be difficult, or should I say impossible, to fight through force alone. The factors which have made this movement popular will have to be eliminated.

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