Religion and Politics in Azerbaijan

Orhan GAFARLI
01 June 2012
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Since gaining their independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fifteen former constituent countries have faced similar problems due to their near seventy-five years of shared history. This similar nature of the problems faced has also manifested itself in relations between states and religious communities in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Especially in the northern part of the Caucasus, issues concerning trends in extreme and conservative approaches are more noticeable. In contrast with the northern Caucasus region, the challenges posed by religious conservative approaches are relatively mild in the southern Caucasus, such as in Azerbaijan. However in recent years, these kinds of problems have become the focus of attention in Azerbaijan.


When Azerbaijan regained independence in 1991 (after being annexed into the Soviet Union after its first independence in 1918), the country was on the brink of collapse.  Poor levels of education in schools and universities, widespread bribery and corruption, and low level living standards and social welfare created the necessary conditions for a wide dissemination of religious conservative approaches.  During the 1991-2003 periods, the two major conservative approaches groups, the Shi’ites and the Salafis, turned Azerbaijan into an arena for propaganda.  However, in the early years, it was unclear what kind of implications conservative approaches threats might create for societal life,   the reason being that, at that time, Azerbaijan was dealing primarily with internal political disputes, negotiation of oil contracts, and with the problem of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.


The events of September 11th 2001 have shown how a religious conservative approach can pose a danger to the world. This event also became аn important message for the security bodies of Azerbaijan. It was necessary to take appropriate measures in order to avoid similar events from occurring in Azerbaijan. Thus, from 2003 onwards, the public security bodies in Azerbaijan began to execute mass arrests of members linked to extremist organizations such as “Hizbut Tahrir,” “Forest Brothers,” “Hezbollah,” and “Al Qaeda,” “Jayshullah.”(1) Until 2012, the security bodies of Azerbaijan carried out a large number of operations aimed at neutralizing extremist trends and religious groups with conservative approaches.


Arrests conducted by the state security apparatus do not resolve the problem of religious conservative approaches. On the contrary, state authorities in some regions implement inadequate measures, which in turn become a cause of extremes trend among religious conservator approaches. Starting in 2011, a state ban was imposed on the wearing of hijab for schoolgirls, paving the path for those women who wear the hijab (and men with long, oft-religious linked, beards) to not able to obtain identity cards. Another example of the mistreatment of religious people was the severe beating by authorities of a man with a beard in the town of Zakatala, in the northwestern region. He was forcibly shaved and his photograph was taken sans beard. The man was then issued a long-denied identity card, albeit the imposed actions venturing to challenge human rights of average citizens. Simultaneously, even in the capital, many mosques are still closed in authorities’ efforts to stem religious extremism in the country. The above mentioned facts indicate that the methods employed by the authorities are not conducive to finding a solution. Authorities may retrospectively realize that their counteractions to religious extremism in such a manner may inadvertently reinforce the position of conservative approaches among religious people. (2) The evidence provided thus far demonstrates the increasing inadequacy of Azerbaijani domestic policy carried out by its authorities.


Trouble in the Caucasus

One must also observe the consequences of the panic and brutal policy in societal security in the northern Caucasus, in regions such as Chechnya, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia and North Ossetia-Alania. Today in the northern Caucasus, religious extremist groups within these federal subjects of the Russian Federation compete in the number of terrorist attacks carried out. Extremes trends groups collect the unofficial “green tax”* from the population of North Ossetia. (3) This tax allows terrorist organizations to solve their financial problems. The number of extremist attacks have been increasing year by year, with 529 terrorist attacks registered in 2010 within Russia’s northern Caucasus republics alone. (4)


Such violence-linked incidents began after a split between the state and the religious leadership, whereas conservative approaches groups have become radicalized. The events unfolding in the northern Caucasus region can be tied to the inadequate and harmful domestic policies created by Azeri central and local authorities. Azerbaijan mirrors the methods of its northern neighbor in its domestic policy, and it may face the similar problems in the future.


The Persistence of the Soviet Legacy

Therefore, why then is the Azerbaijani government pursuing the wrong policy?  The first reason is the lack of securitization experience of the government. The second reason is that the government has yet to pursue an objectively correct policy. The third reason is that the government does not properly evaluate the threats to societal security.


Under the Soviet Union, a form of internal securitization policy did exist. Today, post-Soviet countries – heirs of the USSR – are again turning to such security measures (the KGB and its predecessor, the NKVD). (5) However, in a globalized world, it is essential to employ more constructive methods, rather than revert to tactics used during the Cold War. In this way, democracy and the political sphere come under pressure in the name of securing the societal securitization.  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, fully democratic elections have yet to be held in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, or Turkmenistan (former Soviet entities). The lack of free elections in these regions has been claimed to prevent the rise and installment of governments favoring political Islam. It can be concluded that similar plans are at foot in Azerbaijan, where some management practices from the Soviet Union are still being used.


Key Domestic Reforms, not Political Crackdown, Needed

This trend in domestic policy has been going on for several years in Azerbaijan, with each year becoming harder to alter the course of this trend. It is essential that there is public pressure on the government in order to spread awareness to higher officials that its current strategy is undermining the future stability of not only of its country, but of the region as a whole. Azerbaijan must seriously address issues of societal securitization and to set itself on a sensible policy course. For instance, in the sphere of education, opportunities have to be created to allow the freedom of choice to study of religion, and a series of economic and social reforms need to be implemented in the regions with greater penetration of religiously conservative approaches. In general, conservative approaches are more widespread in the regions with weak socio-economic situation. 


The government of Azerbaijan should take into consideration that the fact that the majority of Muslims of Azerbaijan identify themselves as adherents to their religion. In their religious identity, Azerbaijanis display a traditional outlook on Islam, without conservative approaches leanings. For this reason, conservative approaches are essentially a non-traditional form of Islam in Azerbaijan. Thus, it is reasonable to conduct a soft policy to prevent the expansion of conservative approaches. The “soft” short-term policy will not be effective, but its long-term application will prove to be more productive.


Endnotes

 (1) “Azerbaijan: Independent Islam and the State.” International Crisis Group. Europe Report N°191. March 25th 2008. <http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/europe/
191_azerbaijan_independent_islam_and_the_state.pdf
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(2) Cavadova, Esmira. “The Problem of Police and the Beard in Zagatala.” [Zaqatalada polis və saqqal problem]. Azadliq Radiosu, Azerbaijan. March 19th 2012. <http://www.azadliq.org/content/article/24520564.html.>

(3) Baran, Zeyno,  S. Federick and Svante E. Cornell. “Islamic Radicalism in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Implications for the EU.” Silk Road Paper 2006, Central Asia – Caucasus Institute Silk Road Studies Program. <http://www.silkroadstudies.org/new/docs/Silkroadpapers/0607Islam.pdf.>
(4) United State Department of State. “Country Reports on Terrorism 2010.” Office of the Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism, released in August 2011. Page 68. <http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/170479.pdf.>
(5) The KGB (Committee for State Security) and NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) served as intelligence organizations throughout the reign of the Soviet Empire.
* By using the color green, which has traditionally been tied to Islam-rooted cultures, the “green tax” refers to an extortion method in which religiously-radicalized rebel groups within the Northern Caucasus regions collect funds for their activities.

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