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Islam in Azerbaijan

Article · December 2005

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Anar Valiyev
ADA University, Azerbaijan


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By Anar Valiyev*

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of Communist ideas paved the way for an Islamic
revival in Azerbaijan. Being one of the most secular Muslim republics of the Soviet Union,
Azerbaijan is facing a dilemma concerning how to address contemporary religious issues. A
suppression of religious activities and organizations could lead to internal opposition and
radicalization. In contrast, freedom of religious activities could allow the neighboring state of Iran
to export an Islamist revolution and encourage the development of a radical brand of local
Islamism. The high percentage of poor people, as well as the presence of over 700,000 refugees in
the country, create a dangerous breeding ground for radical organizations to recruit members and
sympathizers for future struggles.

For centuries, religion was an integral and places of worship were restored; dozens of
binding part of public life in Azerbaijan. religious organizations were registered; new
Since antiquity, almost all wars, reforms, and religious schools (madrasas) opened; and
political processes occurred under the banner many young Azerbaijanis are attending
of religion. Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Muslim religious universities in Saudi
Islam enriched the history of Azerbaijan and Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan.
have had a huge impact on the formation of Islam permeates Azerbaijani social life. It
the identity of the Azerbaijani nation. Today, is now common to encounter young people
Azerbaijan is experiencing a religious observing the Muslim traditions or young
revival. Ideological disorientation, the search women dressing in accordance to Islamic
for national and cultural identity, and the traditions. Religion is also actively used by
Karabakh conflict with Armenia are three political leaders as a means of pursuing their
major factors which define the place of Islam interests. After the fall of the Communist
in modern Azerbaijan. regime, political leaders began to observe
About 93.4 percent of Azerbaijan’s Muslim traditions. Heydar Aliyev, then
populations are Muslim, 2.5 percent are president of Azerbaijan and a former KGB
Russian Orthodox, 2.3 percent are Armenian general, was the first Azerbaijani political
Orthodox, and 1.8 percent are classified as leader to visit Mecca in 1994. However, more
“other.”1 Due to the outflow of Russians, the than anything else, this simply demonstrates
number of adherents to Christianity in how Islam is being manipulated by relatively
Azerbaijan is steadily decreasing. secular politicians.
Meanwhile, Islam is experiencing a During the seventy years under
renaissance. Over the past few years, Communist rule, the people were prevented
hundreds of new mosques were built; former from practicing Islamic traditions. However,

Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (December 2005) 1

Anar Valiyev

during the USSR’s perestroika era, below 72,000 Azeri manat (US $15) per
Azerbaijanis identified themselves more with capita per month. 6
the Islamic than the Turkic world. For The picture is exacerbated by high
example, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah numbers of refugees and internally displaced
Khomeini was a popular symbolic alternative persons. The occupation of about 20 percent
to the Soviet system. His picture was often of Azerbaijan’s territories by Armenian
displayed in people’s homes, despite the fact forces has resulted in the mass movement of
that these individuals were unfamiliar with people seeking refuge. By the end of 2002,
his ideology and did not sympathize with his there were 783,200 refugees and internally
worldview. 2 displaced persons in Azerbaijan, accounting
Indeed, this apparent religious revival for approximately one-seventh of the
remained rather superficial. Polls conducted country’s total population. 7 The Iranian
in 2000 showed that believers constituted Hizballah and Saudi missionary organizations
63.4 percent of all respondents, though only are very active in refugee camps, attempting
6.7 percent considered themselves “firm to recruit and to establish future terrorist
believers.” In contrast, 10.4 percent cells.
pronounced themselves agnostic and 7.1 Another potential problem is the division
percent as non-believers. An additional 8.6 of the population between Shi’a and Sunni
percent said they were indifferent. Just 3.8 Muslims. Due to a lack of statistics, at
percent of the respondents categorized present it can only be assumed that out of
themselves as “firm atheists.” However, more than 7.6 million Azerbaijanis of Muslim
when asked about their observance of the background, a majority of between 65 to 75
religious commandments, only 17.7 percent percent are connected to Shi’i traditions; the
of the “believers” indicated observance of rest consider themselves Sunni. It is
one of the main pillars of Islam: namaz important to note that although for the most
(prayer). Thus, 82.3 percent of the part, religious knowledge is very poor, the
“believers” do not abide by this injunction. 3 inhabitants of the different regions of the
Despite its usefulness for the country’s country have preserved aspects of their Shi’a
leaders, the revival of Islam in Azerbaijan or Sunni heritage. Until 1992, the division of
was nonetheless dangerous for the incumbent Azerbaijanis between Shi’a or Sunni Islam
rulers. One factor involved was the material was nominal. It was even possible to be a
deprivation of the population, making them member of the Communist Party and be
inclined to seek a drastic alternative to the atheist, but to preserve Shi’a or Sunni cultural
status quo. According to the UN Human traditions. In Azerbaijan, Islam, whether
Development Report, 49.6 percent of the Shi’a or Sunni, was considered a culture
population lives below the poverty level.4 rather than a religion. 8 Traditionally, Sunni
Although the Azerbaijani government Muslims populate the northern and western
decreased the poverty level from 61 percent part of Azerbaijan, while other sections,
in 1995 to 49.6 percent in 2001, the life of including the capital Baku and its suburbs,
almost half of the population remains in are home to Shi’a Muslims.
desolate conditions. 5 Seventeen percent of A new element in the picture is the Salafi
the total population, or 1.3 million, lived in radical Islamists who are actively seeking to
extreme poverty, with monthly consumption establish their influence. They have had some

2 Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (December 2005)

Azerbaijan: Islam in a Post-Soviet Republic

success, especially among ethnic minorities When the Safavid Empire was established in
such as the Avars and Lezgins of northern the sixteenth century, its founder, Ismail I,
Azerbaijan. The anti-Shi’a feelings of many declared Shi’ism the official religion and
Sunni Salafi Islamists could raise the expelled Sunni clerics. There were also
possibility of clashes between the two Islamic political considerations behind these actions.
streams. The Azerbaijani state was the rival of the
How Islam will develop in Azerbaijan and Ottoman Empire, where Sunni Islam was the
its influences on society and politics is one of official religion. In retrospect, Ismail’s
the most important issues the country faces. decision also helped preserve an Azeri
identity separate from that of other Turks and
More than 2,100 years ago, Azerbaijan The Russian conquest of Azerbaijan
became the center of Zoroastrianism, whose during the first quarter of nineteenth century
founder was, according to legend, born in changed the situation. The Russian
South Azerbaijan (today northern Iran). Until authorities were inclined to eliminate Muslim
the seventh century, the religion dominated influence from the Caucasus to make this
Azerbaijan and played an important role in region Christian, and thus pro-Russian.12
shaping the worldview and traditions of the During the first ten years of Russian rule,
Azeri people. The main holiday of Azerbaijan 100,000 Azeris were expelled from Erivan,
remains Novruz Bayram, which announces Nakhichevan, Karabakh, and Lori to the
the start of spring and now coincides with the neighboring countries and were replaced by
Islamic New Year. Zoroastrian traditions can Armenians and Russian colonists.
still be found in the country’s legends, However, the vast and long-term nature of
fairytales, and music. 9 this project led to a change in Russian policy.
In the fourth century, Christianity arrived, The new policy aimed to establish Muslim
though some churches date back to an even provinces that would be loyal to the Russian
earlier time. 10 In the seventh century, a empire and would be governed by Russian
Muslim Arab army defeated Persia and officials. In 1823, the position of Shaykh al-
conquered South Azerbaijan, which was part Islam was established in Tiflis, and Akhund
of the Persian Sasanid Empire at the time. (Minister) Muhammad Ali Huseynzadeh was
While Islam treated Christians and Jews with appointed to this position. In 1872, the
tolerance, it persecuted Zoroastrians as Russians created a Shi’a and Sunni spiritual
pagans to the point that the religion soon department, which made the religious leaders
disappeared from Azerbaijan. servants of the government. The creation of
After the death of Muhammad, the two spiritual departments, headed by Mufti
political struggle in the Arab Califate was for Sunni and Shaykh al-Islam for Shi’a,
reflected in Azerbaijan as well, with the pursued the aim of strengthening state control
division of Islam into Shi’a and Sunni over mosques and fueling Sunni-Shi’a
streams. Iranians, in part due to a sense of differences. By the end of the Czarist Empire,
having a separate history and identity from there were 23 Shi’a and 16 Sunni judges in
the Arabs, chose to become Shi’a. Most Azerbaijan. 13
Azerbaijanis, feeling closer to the Persians Historically, the proportion of Sunni
than to the Arabs, followed the same course. Muslims in Russian-occupied Azerbaijan was

Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (December 2005) 3

Anar Valiyev

much higher than among the Azeris of Iran. country, but by 1933, only 17--eleven Shi’a,
Russian statistics from the 1830s show that two Sunni, and four mixed (where Shi’a and
the ratio of Shi’a to Sunni was almost even, Sunni Muslims prayed together)--had
with the latter having a small edge. 14 The survived.
proportion of Sunni, however, declined During World War II, as the Soviets were
remarkably. By 1860, figures indicate that attempting to mobilize support among Turkic
Shi’a Twelvers of the Jafari rite held a clear people--some of whom were rebelling against
majority of 2:1. The decrease in the Soviet rule --this policy of religious
proportionate strength of the Sunni element persecution was changed slightly. On April
was the result of their immigration to 14, 1944, the Spiritual Department of
Turkey15 . The main reason for immigration Muslims of the Transcaucasus was restored
was the hidden pressure of the Czarist regime and headed by a Shi’a with a Sunni-deputy.
on the Sunni. Due to the long-term resistance The authorities began re-opening mosques all
of Imam Shamil in Northern Caucasus, the over the country. 17
Czarist administration feared a Sunni uprising Out of 100 Muslim religious leaders, only
in Azerbaijan. sixteen had received theological training at
The Russian revolution and the the Islamic University of Tashkent or the Mir
establishment of the Azerbaijan Democratic Arab madrasa in Bukhara. 18 Allahshukur
Republic (ADR) shook the dominant Pashazadeh, the future Shaykh al-Islam of the
positions of Islam. During the transition era Caucasian Muslims, was among them.
from 1918 to 1920, the founding fathers of Whereas in 1976 there were only sixteen
the ADR tried to build a modern state geared registered mosques and one madrasa in
toward the Western world. The establishment Azerbaijan, by the end of the Soviet period,
of Bolshevik power in Azerbaijan led to there were 200 mosques,, including
waves of terror in which 48,000 people die d. unregistered places of worship. 19
At first, though, the Bolsheviks considered Still, the manifestation of Islamic identity-
Islam as an ally in the struggle against the profession of faith, pilgrimage to Mecca,
imperialistic states and even argued that the month of the Ramadan fast, almsgiving,
Islam’s view of politics and society did not and the five daily prayers--remained largely
contradict Marxism. While the Russian non-existent. 20 As an ideology, Islam has
Orthodox Church in Russia was totally been put on the margin of survival during the
destroyed, Islamic institutions in Azerbaijan seventy years of Soviet totalitarianism and
cooperated with authorities and were atheistic propaganda. The majority of the
integrated into the state. 16 clergy was arrested, killed, or isolated from
The Bolshevik policy toward Islam the community. At best, they were turned into
suddenly changed in 1927. All Shari’a and agents of the Soviet system. This docile
adat (traditional) courts, which dealt with clergy created a negative attitude towards
domestic and religious matters, were spiritual leaders, which is still present today.
liquidated. Mustafa Guliyev, the people’s There were, however, those who continued to
commissar for education of Soviet act as independent representatives of Islam in
Azerbaijan, organized the shutting down of Azerbaijan and maintained the continuity of
the mosques. He stated that in 1929 there piety and tradition. These included those of
were 960 Shi’a and 400 Sunni mosques in the

4 Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (December 2005)

Azerbaijan: Islam in a Post-Soviet Republic

seyid (saintly) descent who maintained holy considerable number of the places allocated
places (pirs). by Muslim states for Azerbaijani pilgrims are
given to representatives of the government.
ISLAM IN THE POST-SOVIET ERA The Law on Freedom of Worship itself
At the dawn of the democratic movement underwent changes in the Aliyev years.
in Azerbaijan (1988-1991), the clergy joined Having encoutered a number of unexpected
the struggle for national independence. Yet, problems, such as Christian missionary
while secular nationalists and pious Muslims activity and Salafi and Iranian propaganda,
cooperated, the political parties were amendments were introduced to limit
concerned with maintaining Islam as a missionary activity and to subordinate the
strictly ethical and religious element in social independent religious communities to semi-
life, one that would not seep into the political state control. The religious department was
arena. also restored to a cabinet level ministry.
During the rule of the national democrats Consequently, Islam during Aliyev’s
(1992-1993), the Law on Freedom of government appeared integrated in and
Worship was adopted. All property taken by subordinate to the state system. Thus, the
the Soviets from mosques and religious religious revival did not generally appear to
communities was to be returned. The conflict with the hegemony of nationalism
Spiritual Department of Transcaucasus and the stability of the regime. New Islamic
Muslims was separated from the state, and educational institutions opened, mosques
state grants to the department and religious were built, and pilgrimage to Mecca and
communities were stopped. For the first time Medina became possible. Aliyev became the
in 200 years, the religious figures ceased to first Azerbaijani leader in modern times to go
receive state salaries and resorted to on Hajj, visited mosques on holidays, and
collecting donations from the public.21 encouraged numerous Islamic conferences. 22
Though the post-Soviet government feared This process continued throughout the
the growth of an Islamist movement, it 1990s. However, while encouraging official
granted full freedom of worship in order to spiritual leaders and activities , the state--and
maintain believers’ support for state building. its supporting clerics--opposed independent
Heydar Aliyev’s government, which came preaching. Shaykh Hajji Allahshukur
to power in a 1993 coup, used official Pashazade, head of the Clerical Management
religious figures extensively to legitimize its Institution, rejected “self-appointed mullahs”
rule. The clergy generally cooperated with who were uneducated and not connected to
this program, in part because they supported his organization.
Azerbaijani nationalism over political Yet despite the revival of Islamic
Islamism. The president of the secular state traditions in Azerbaijan, public knowledge of
swears fidelity to the constitution and to the Islam still is at a low level. Fortunetellers
Koran; in exchange, the Spiritual Department insist that they are foretelling the future by
gives its a stamp of approval and creates using the Koran. Many Shi’a claim that the
propaganda so that government actions are flagellation ritual on the tenth day of
viewed as conforming to Islamic norms. The Muha rram is the most important ceremony
head of state occasionally visits a mosque, under Muslim law, even though they do not
some of which display his picture, and a pray or know any of the basic principles of

Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (December 2005) 5

Anar Valiyev

Islam. The most widely celebrated religious continued to spread anti-Islamic views after
holiday remains the non-Muslim Novruz their return. 24
Bayram. Another indicator of the unique
Even such a basic ritual as the funeral Azerbaijani view of Islam concerns women’s
service--the ceremony most often connected rights. Nayereh Tohidi, a researcher from
with Islam in Azerbaijan--is sometimes California State University, describes the
carried out with errors contradicting Islam. attitude of the average Azeri woman towards
Existing practices or the ignorance of mullahs veiling. “In June 1992, when a delegation of
are simply too deeply entrenched. No one 22 Islamist women headed by Zehra
would think, for example, of reciting a sura Mostafavi, daughter of Khomeini, visited
(line) from the Koran at a wedding. Such an Baku, Azerbaijan, wrapped in heavy chadors
individual would simply be thrown out of the in the heat of summer, they were met with
wedding having created a funereal stares and disdainful reactions everywhere
atmosphere or, even worse, might be branded they went. On one occasion, a middle -aged
as a Salafi or Wahhabi adherent. Of course, Azeri woman asked, ‘Do not you feel hot
Wahhabi Islam is unlikely to have any under this heavy black garment in this hot
success among the predominantly Shi’a summer?’ ‘But the fire in hell is much hotter
Azerbaijanis. if one fails to follow Allah’s orders,’” one of
While most Azerbaijanis consider Islam a the Iranians replied. Baffled by her response
part of their national identity, any mixing of the Azeri woman mumbled, “What a cruel
religion with the political sphere is rejected God you have! The Allah that I know is much
by the vast majority of the population. kinder to women.” 25
Critical to understandin g this issue is that the However, the points noted above do not
Azerbaijani view of Islam is one of a necessarily indicate that the situation will
common national characteristic, inseparable forever remain as it is. Some other countries
from its Turkic ethnic identity, which no with a relatively high level of secularism or
single group can try to monopolize for its moderate interpretation of Islam have seen a
own rhetoric. As such, it lends little appeal as large portion of their people turn in a militant
a driving or dividing force in the political direction. In the so-called “Islamist belt” of
arena. 23 the country’s southern districts, Iranian
One startling point about the shallowness preachers have been active. In villages near
of the Islamic revival in Azerbaijan is that it Baku one can see portraits of Khomeini and
is probably the only country in the Muslim Islamic quotes in the windows of houses and
world where the quota allocated by the on walls. The rallies staged by the Union of
government of the Saudi Arabia for a Hajj Azerbaijani Forces in 2002 became one of the
pilgrimage remains unclaimed. Vacant places biggest protest actions by the opposition, with
are resold to pilgrims from the Chechen many Islamists carrying green banners of
Republic and Dagestan. In 1998, the king of Islam and shouting “Allahu Akbar”
Saudi Arabia offered to cover the expenses of participating. A couple of years ago, few
200 Azerbaijani pilgrims. However, there could take the threat of fundamentalism in
were some ardent atheists among those who Azerbaijan seriously. However, the threat of
accepted and went, and these individuals Islamic fundamentalism now seems

6 Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (December 2005)

Azerbaijan: Islam in a Post-Soviet Republic

With a leadership of only semi-literate

ISLAMIST RADICAL RGANIZATIONS mullahs boasting no more than a secondary
AND PARTIES IN AZERBAIJAN school education, the IPA could not involve
Due to its strategic geographical position members of the educated elite in its ranks. It
and relative religious vacuum, Azerbaijan has appealed mainly to rural populations. The
attracted the attention of many religious as party’s basic ideology is the belief that only
well as radical organizations. Weak law- Islam can structure an independent
enforcement agencies, a corrupt Azerbaijan. According to Hajji, the republic
governmental system, a high percentage of will not be able to extricate itself from crisis
refugees, and wide-spread poverty have until its leaders have accepted Islamic values
brought Islamist radical groups to view and concepts of state building.
Azerbaijan as possessing great potential for a The IPA preaches an anti-Turkic, anti-
takeover. These radical religious groups have Semitic, and anti-American doctrine threaded
come from three directions: with conspiracy theories. Considering any
--The first and strongest “export base” is form of nationalism as Shirk (i.e.,
Iran. Through its affiliated organizations such worshipping anything other than Allah,
as Hizballah, the Imam Khomeini Fund, and breaking strict Muslim monotheism), it
others, Iran could spread its influence over rejects loyalty to a larger Turkic community
large parts of Azerbaijan’s territory. as anti-Islamic. The main task of Muslim
--The second, and less influential, group society, according to the party, is to block the
are Turkish non-traditional religious spread of American civilization. But the true
organizations, such as the Nurchular or principal enemy of the Muslim world is a
Fattulachilar. Masonic conspiracy directed by Israel. In a
--Last, but not least, are the Wahhabi or bizarre rapprochement with Russian neo-
Salafi movements. The adherents of the fascist ideology, the IPA advocates an
Salafi Islamists in Azerbaijan are growing alliance between Islamists and the Russian
faster than any other stream of Islam. Orthodox Church to destroy the “enemies of
humanity” at their Tel Aviv headquarters. 27
The Islamist Party of Azerbaijan (IPA) Such ideas, propagated in the party’s
The highest-profile organization in this organs Islam Dunyasi (Islamic World) and
category is the Islamist Party of Azerbaijan Islamyn Sesi (Voice of Islam), were not well
(IPA), which has been very much influenced received elsewhere in Azerbaijan since they
by Iran. Iranian religious missionaries ha ve conflicted with the country’s generally held
been energetic in southern Azerbaijan, as beliefs. The main influences on the IPA’s
well as in villages around Baku, where the ideology are in fact external--late Soviet and
population is predominantly Shi’a Muslim. Iranian ideas. Furthermore, there exists what
The IPA was established in November 1991 might be called a crackpot tone to the IPA’s
in the village of Nardaran near Baku. The propaganda that does not play well in
party was officially registered in 1992. Its Azerbaijan. It asserts, for instance, that
leader, Al Akram Hajji, is a trained organizations like the UN, UNESCO, and
philologist who, apparently unqualified in his OSCE are being manipulated by Masons and
profession, long worked loading trucks and as Zionists to make Azerbaijan an American
a food shop clerk. 26 vassal. 28 This rhetoric stirs up antagonism

Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (December 2005) 7

Anar Valiyev

within nationalist groups, because it echoes the Imdad Khomeini committee being one of
Iranian attacks on Azerbaijan for cooperating the main such groups. By 2001, the
with the United States and Israel. Finally, in committee had 415 offices across Azerbaijan.
1995, the party’s top leadership was accused The committee distributed humanitarian aid
of a coup attempt and imprisoned. for free and built new houses and
infrastructure while also illegally smuggling
Hizballah radical religious literature from Iran into
As early as 1993, the Iranian group Azerbaijan.
Hizballah began working in Azerbaijani
refugee camps. By early 1997, newspapers The Salafi Islamists
reported that hundreds of young Azerbaijanis Numerous articles and news reports have
had been trained in Iranian Hizballah camps. been published concerning Salafi Islamist
After their graduation, they were sent back activity in Azerbaijan. However, most tend to
home to proliferate Hizballah’s ideas. It is be antagonistic and superficial. Journalists,
very difficult to analyze the activity of the government, and the official Shi’a clergy
Hizballah in Azerbaijan due to the lack of have all helped create a negative public
reliable information. In February 1997, a opinion of Salafi Islamists, tending to present
famous Azerbaijani scholar, the academician them as either terrorists, heretics, or both.
Ziya Bunyatov, was assassinated in Baku. Many Azeris often refer to Salafi Islamists in
The Ministry of National Security (MNS) a derogatory manner and dismiss them as
accused Hizballah of the political “Wahhabis,” sakkalilar (bearded people), or
assassination. Leaders of Hizballah, garasakkalilar (black-bearded people).
according to MNS, accused Bunyatov of Despite this campaign, the number and
being an agent of the Israeli Mossad and of influence of Salafi Islamists in Azerbaijan is
disseminating Zionism in Azerbaijan. Five steadily gr owing. Salafi ideas are becoming
people were arrested and sentenced to long increasingly popular among the younger
terms. However, the head of the organization, generation. In Baku alone, which is the ultra-
Tariel Ramazanov, successfully escaped to secular capital of Azerbaijan, the number of
Iran. Salafi Islamists has reportedly reached
The death of this scholar became a signal 15,000. 29
for a full-scale attack against all Iranian- The first Salafi missionaries arrived in
affiliated organizations. In the fall of 2001, Azerbaijan from the Northern Caucasus in
the MNA arrested six citizens in possession the mid-1990s. The majority of them came
of documents proving their connection with from Chechnya and Dagestan, where the
Hizballah. Additionally, a network consisting Salafi Islamists had some influence primarily
of thirty people was revealed. During the due to the Russian-Chechen wars. For a short
interrogations, members of Hizballah openly while, Salafi Islamists made some inroads in
rejected the secular regime of Azerbaijan. Chechnya and were even able to create their
own self -ruled area in the Dagestani villages
The Committee Imdad Khomeini of Karamaxi and Chobanmakhi. However,
Ever since December 1993, Iranian Salafi Islamists did not stop in Chechnya and
organizations have targeted Azerbaijani Dagestan, and instead, extended their
displaced persons for extensive propaganda, activities into Azerbaijan. Initially, they did

8 Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (December 2005)

Azerbaijan: Islam in a Post-Soviet Republic

not gain wide support among Azeris, as is Gammet Suleyma nov, a graduate of the
nationalism and pan-Turkism were much World Islamic University of Medina, a
more popular than Islam. Moreover, in the leading center for the study and export of
immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Salafism.
USSR, Azeri society was not as deeply There are essentially three factors driving
impoverished and divided as it is today. In the expansion of Salafism in Azerbaijan.
addition, 65 to 70 percent of Azeris are First, the overwhelming majority of
adherents of Shi’a Islam, and hence have indigenous Sala fi Islamists are Sunni
little regard for Salafi ideas. The Shi’a Muslims from ethnic minorities. This
Muslims of Azerbaijan–for both historical constituency sees Salafism as a counter-
and cultural reasons–are heavily influenced balance to the growing Iranian influence in
by Iran, a country whose government is Azerbaijan.
widely regarded as the archrival of the Salafi Second, the rapid polarization and
Islamists. Given Azerbaijan’s Shi’a impoverishment of Azeri society has led to a
complexion, the religious Sunni of rural pervasive disillusionment with traditional
northern Azerbaijan form the primary institutions and modern Western democratic
constituency of Salafism in the country. ideas. Salafi Islamists have cleverly tapped
The second wave of Salafi expansion into this pool of profound discontent,
started with the beginning of the Second frequently criticizing the corruption of the
Russo-Chechen War in 1999. The Russian government, the decline of morality and
military command tried to push Chechen traditions, as well as the rise of criminality in
rebels–particularly those of Salafi the country.
orientation–out of the Northern Caucasus into Thirdly, Salafi Islamists tout the
the neighboring states of Georgia and universalistic qualities of their ideology, and
Azerbaijan. Thus, some of the 8,000 Cheche n the fact that it supposedly transcends all
refugees who arrived in Azerbaijan in 1999- Islamist sects and traditions. This is
2000 were persecuted Chechen Salafi particularly appealing in Azerbaijan where
Islamists. 30 Meanwhile, missionaries from the sectarian rivalry between Shi’a and Sunni has
Persian Gulf countries dramatically increased been on the rise.
their activities in Azerbaijan. The government of Azerbaijan does not
By 2003, 65 new Salafi-controlled condone Salafism or its adherents. In the
mosques had been established in Azerbaijan. mid-1990s, the Azeri government tolerated
One of the largest Salafi mosques in the Salafi Islamists, fearing that intolerance
country is the Abu Bakr mosque. Built in would irritate the rich Persian Gulf states
1997 in Baku by the Azeri branch of the from whom it sought financial aid. From
Kuwaiti society Revival of Islamic Heritage, 2001 to 2003, however, the situation changed
Abu Bakr became one of the most successful dramatically, as the Azeri government began
mosques in Azerbaijan. While the Shi’a or to persecute the Salafi Islamists. One of the
Sunni mosques are usually able to attract main reasons for this policy shift was the
approximately 300 people for Friday prayers, rapidly increasing number of Salafi mosques.
the number of people visiting the Abu Bakr Another reason was the Salafi community’s
mosque typically reaches 5,000 to 7,000 preference for electing their imams
people. 31 The imam of the Abu Bakr mosque

Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (December 2005) 9

Anar Valiyev

themselves rather than allowing the By the end of 2001, Azeri authorities
government to appoint them. launched an unofficial campaign against the
However, arguably, the most important Salafi Islamists. Taking into consideration
reason is the Salafi Islamists’ serious that large groups of Salafi Islamists are
opposition to the current autocratic Azeri Chechens, the authorities attempted to create
regime. In their preaching, Salafi Islamists unfavorable conditions for Chechen refugees.
blame the government for a number of As a result, Aslan Maskhadov, the leader of
failures, ranging from the defeat in the the Chechen resistance, advised Chechens to
Karabakh conflict with Armenia to the moral leave Azerbaijan. Simultaneously, the
decay of society. Alarmingly for the Aze ri authorities started a ruthless campaign against
establishment, Salafi Islamists do not make a Azeri Salafi Islamists. For a short while,
secret of their aspirations to acquire political many mosques were shut down and regional
power in Azerbaijan. In 2001, the Court on police forces were instructed to crush Salafi
Heavy Crimes sentenced twelve Azeris who cells by any means necessary.
aspired to fight in Chechnya. During the trial,
Suleymanov, the imam of the Abu Bakr Turkish Direction
mosque (who is often referred to as “emir” The Turkish Islamist organization called
rather than “imam” in order to differentiate Nurcular has expanded its network in
himself from the Shi’a), was summoned to Azerbaijan as well. This organization has
the court to testify. All the would-be founded several secondary schools in
mujahideen had been frequent visitors of the Azerbaijan and has links with some Turkish
Abu Bakr mosque and were recruited there politicians and companies. The Turkish mass
by Chechen rebels. media reported that the Turkish Education
Another trial concerning the Pan-Islamist Ministry is conducting an investigation,
Hizb-ut Tahrir organization also revealed that which could result in the closure of many
its members had visited the Abu Bakr educational institutions both in Turkey and
mosque. In May 2002, the deputy minister of Azerbaijan, because they were set up by
national security, Tofiq Babayev, stated that a followers of last century’s Islamic scholar
number of Arab countries were interested in Said Nursi (1876-1960). Nurcular appeared
spreading radical Wahhabism in Azerbaijan. in Azerbaijan right after the country gained
According to Babayev, over 300 Azeris had independence. They began by creating a
been trained in Wahhabi centers in Dagestan. television channel, but lacking a large
The deputy minister identified three stages in audience, soon turned their priority to
the effort to make Wahhabism a grassroots schools. This group, however, is not seen as a
movement in Azerbaijan. First, there is the subversive threat.
spread of Wahhabi literature and the
provision of financial assistance to potential THE PROSPECTS
activists. The second stage involves the As in many other countries, which have
efficient training of the activists, and the final adopted the religion, Islam in Azerbaijan has
stage deals with the mobilization of active always been unique because of the influence
members for acts of terrorism designed to of the particular local history and conditions.
destabilize the state. 32 For Azeris, the pirs (the tombs of “saints” or
people with extraordinary abilities) became

10 Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (December 2005)

Azerbaijan: Islam in a Post-Soviet Republic

places of prayer and worship rather than between the average person and the top one
mosques. For the majority of the population, or two percent who own everything;” and
Islam was considered a tradition rather than a take advantage of the fact that “no one seems
religion. That is why for many Azerbaijanis it to care” about democracy. 34 These signs, in a
seems to be blasphemy or a form of country that neighbors Iran, should elicit
intimidation to return to what foreign concern.
Islamists consider to be “pure Islam.” It can Meanwhile, the proliferation of Salafi
well be said that in Azerbaijan, Islam does Islamist ideas among religious and ethnic
not act as an independent force in society or minorities could create powerful centrifugal
politics. It is respected, it is used, but it is not forces that will in due course threaten the
obeyed. 33 Most likely, the secular tendencies national unity of Azerbaijan. Contrary to their
of materialism and popular culture will own propaganda, the Salafi Islamists are
prevail. exacerbating sectarian tensions in the
However, things could change. Elements country. They have already destroyed several
of today’s religious situation in Azerbaijan Shi’a places of worship, which has created ill
are similar to those of Iran in the early 1970s: feeling. In the very worst-case scenario,
disenchantment with a debauched and serious violence directed toward the majority
corrupted government, concern over a grave Shi’a community could provoke some form
economic situation, anger over repression, of Iranian intervention, not least because the
and disappointment with democracy. If this Iranians are anxious to curtail Salafi
situation continues, it is clear that religious influence in Azerbaijan. But more alarming is
organizations with ample foreign financing the Salafi Islamists’ skillful exposure and
will recruit more followers. After all, even manipulation of the establishment’s
during the Iranian revolution a large portion incompetence, coupled with the increasing
of the population did not want Islamism but impoverishment of the country, which could
simply united behind an Islamist leadership make them a powerful political force in the
to overthrow an unpopular government. mid- term. This will inevitably lead to a harsh
As the leader of the opposition Popular security crackdown, which could, in turn,
Front Party, Ali Karimli, stated in February provoke serious acts of terrorism in the
2005, due to the restriction of the secular country. Aside from destabilizing the
political opposition, Islamists are getting government, the risks to the United States--
stronger. As Karimli put it, “On Fridays more which has made considerable diplomatic,
than three or four thousand people turn up at economic and security investments in
services in every mosque in a country where I Azerbaijan--are self-evident.
cannot gather fifty people together for a
meeting!” In discussing the issues being *Anar Valiyev is a Ph.D. candidate in Public
exploited by Islamists he cited the Karabakh Affairs at the University of Louisville in
conflict, arguing that though Azerbaijani Kentucky. His areas of interest include urban
territory is invaded and there are four UN terrorism, public policy of post-Soviet
resolutions supporting this, “because we are countries, governance, and democracy. The
Muslim, our rights are not respected.” He author would like to thank Diana Schwarz for
also pointed out that the Islamists highlight her insightful comments.
the “extreme poverty and the huge inequality

Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (December 2005) 11

Anar Valiyev

CIA, The World Factbook ok/2002/en/002_20.shtml.
ook /geos/aj.html. Religious affiliation is Raul Motika, “Islam in Post-Soviet
still nominal in Azerbaijan. In its surveys, Azerbaijan,” Archives de Sciences Sociales
the State Statistical Committee does des
inquire about religious affiliation. Religions, Vol. 115 (Summer 2001),
A. Polonskiy, “Islam v Kontekste
Obshestvennoy Jizni Sovremennogo Anar Valiyev, Impact of Zoroastrianism
Azerbaijana,” Istoriya, Vol. 28 (Winter on Mentality and Traditions of
1999), p. 11. Azerbaijanis (1999). Unpublished
http://www.1september.ru/ru/his/99/his28 manuscript.
Farida Mammadova, Political History
Tair Faradov, “Religiosity in Post- and Historical Geography of
Soviet Azerbaijan: A Socio logical Caucasian Albania (Baku: Nashr, 1986),
Survey,” ISIM Newsletter (September pp. 37-38.
2001), p. 28.
http://www.isim.nl/files/newsl_8.pdf. Valiyev, Impact of Zoroastrianism.
Human Development Report 2004 (New Ali Abasov, “Islam v Sovremennom
York, United Nations Development Azerbaijane: Obrazhi I Realii,” in D.E.
Program, 2004). Furman (ed.), Azerbaijan I Rossia:
http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2004/. Obshhestva I Gosudarstva (Moscow:
Sakharov Foundation, 2001).
5 http://www.sakharov-
Alec Rasizade, “Azerbaijan in
Transition to the ‘New Age of center.ru/azrus/az_009.htm.
Democracy,’” Communist and Post- 13
Communist Studies , Vol. 36, No. 3 Ibid.
(2003), pp. 342-43. 14
Tadeusz Swietochowski, “Azerbaijan:
6 The Hidden Faces of Islam,” World
Azerbaijan - Poverty reduction strategy
Policy Journal, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Fall
paper and joint IDA-IMF staff
2002), p. 69.
assessment, Vol. 1, World Bank report,
April 2003, p. 4. Access online at: 15
Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russian
http://www- Azerbaijan 1905-1920 (Cambridge
wds.worldbank.org/servlet/WDS_IBank_ University Press: Cambridge, 1985), p. 8.
0030506140627 16
Swietochowski, “Azerbaijan: The
Hidden Faces of Islam,” p. 70.
State Statistical Committee of
Azerbaijan Republic.

12 Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (December 2005)

Azerbaijan: Islam in a Post-Soviet Republic

17 29
Abasov, “Islam v Sovremennom Azeri Official Lauds Shrinking Clout
Azerbaijane: Obrazhi I Realii.” of Missionaries. Azerbaijan TV station
ANS, December 28, 2004.
Abasov, “Islam v Sovremennom
Azerbaijane: Obrazhi I Realii.” Anar Valiyev, “The Rise of Salafi
Islam in Azerbaijan,” Terrorism Monitor ,
Ibid. Vol. 3, No. 13 (July 1, 2005), p. 6.
Swietochowski, “Azerbaijan: The s/article.php?articleid=2369735.
Hidden Faces of Islam,” p. 72.
Interview with Imam of Abu Bakr
Law on Freedom of Worship, 1992. mosque, Kavkazskiy Vestnik. Accessed
Azerbaijan Legislature. Baku, 1996. May 24, 2004. www.kvestnik.org.
22 32
Polonskiy, “Islam v Kontekste Turan News Agency, March 17, 2001.
Obshestvennoy Jizni Sovremennogo www.turaninfo.com.
Azerbaijana,” p. 11.
Polonskiy, “Islam v Kontekste
Ibid, p. 11. Obshestvennoy Jizni Sovremennogo
24 Azerbaijana,” p. 13.
Turan News Agency, September 3,
1998. www.turaninfo.com. 34
Capitol Hill Hearing Testimony
25 Committee. Testimony by Zeyno Baran,
Nairi Tohidi, “The Global-Local
Director of International Security and
Intersection of Feminism in Muslim
Energy Programs, The Nixon Center,
Societies: The Cases of Iran and
March 8, 2005.
Azerbaijan,” Social Research, Vol 69,
No. 3 (Fall 2002), pp. 853-54.
Polonskiy, “Islam v Kontekste
Obshestvennoy Jizni Sovremennogo
Azerbaijana,” p. 12.
Islam Dunyasi, April, 1994.
R.M. Hasanov, “Islam v
Obshhestvenno-Politicheskoi Zhizni
Azerbaijana,” Socis, Vol. 1 (Spring

Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (December 2005) 13

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