REPORT – Azerbaijan-Iran Relations: Secularism vs. Shiism?

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SHAFAQNA – The growing number of insurgents from Azerbaijan in the ranks of ISIL combatants, along with the tensions in the Iranian-Azerbaijani relations, turn the attention to the importance of the religious life inside this post-Soviet country.

The fact that there is a crescent on the flag of Azerbaijan does not mean that Azerbaijan is a country with Islamic rule. Modern Azerbaijan, which was part of the Soviet Union in the past century, is a completely secular country.

Despite the country leadership’s claims of adherence to democracy and human rights, the opposition blames it for the oppression of Muslims and even war against Islam. But national officials argue that they just defend the secular political regime from religious and political expansion from Shiite and Sunni radicals.

The Revival of Islam

Most of Azerbaijan’s population is Shiite, which is due to the heavy influence Iran used to have in the country. About 30 percent of Azerbaijani Muslims are Sunnis. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Islam has been rapidly gaining popularity in Azerbaijan.

Official statistics on this subject are not available. Yet, according to estimates for the last year from a local NGO, Institute for Peace and Democracy, about seven percent of the eight million Azerbaijani population are actively practicing Islam.

The author of “Political Islam in Azerbaijan,” Arif Yunusov, states that over the past 20 years the number of new mosques in the country has increased a hundredfold, and this trend may continue in the future. “The new generation of young Azerbaijanis are more interested in religion than the older generation, educated in Soviet times,” explains the analyst.

The growth of religiosity inside Azerbaijan attains special importance because of the country’s neighborhood and historical with Shiite Iran. A local analyst, Ali Abbasov, said, “After gaining independence from the USSR, Azerbaijan was faced with a wave of religious expansion from Iran via radio, TV, the mass export of Shiite literature, the activity of religious preachers, the creation of relief funds, and so on.”

On the other hand, Sunni preachers are very active in Azerbaijan too. Moreover, according to some analysts, the interest in Sunni Islam among young people is growing faster than that of Shiism, which the Azerbaijani authorities consider a serious threat.

Restrictions on Religious Activity

Azerbaijani leaders are afraid of the growing influence of Shiite political ideology from Iran; yet, at the same time, they are afraid of the formation of a new opposite force on the basis of the growing Sunni community. In several reports issued since 2002, the Council of Europe criticized restrictions by the Azerbaijani authorities on religious activity.

The criticism targeted the restrictions on the registration of religious communities and calling to Islam the believers from other religions, in addition to the ban on religious propaganda by foreign citizens and stateless persons.

Moreover, few years ago the Azerbaijani authorities banned school-girls from wearing hijab and the Azerbaijani Parliament banned Azerbaijani citizens from getting religious education abroad without the approval of the authorities.

According to the political analyst Zafar Guliyev, the scandal around the ban on wearing the hijab is a reflection of Azerbaijani authorities’ “Islamophobia.” Azerbaijani analyst Parvin Alizada confirms that national authorities are afraid of the rapid Islamic revival in the country.

Guliyev thinks that the Azerbaijani officials’ fear of Islam was one of the factors that led to the recent government measures to close a number of mosques and restrict the distribution of literature with religious content.

If the authorities will not change their policy toward Islam, “the scope and emotional intensity of religious protests will definitely increase,” predicted Guliyev. His fears are materializing with the increase of brutality in the protests against prohibition of hijab and closing of mosques.

In 2011, according to Shahin Abbasov, a protest had a thousand religious activists chanting “Hijab: our honor and dignity!” and “Freedom hijab!” the protest blocked the street for an hour in front of the Ministry of Education. Some demonstrators burned a photo of the Minister of Education Misir Mardanov. While in 2012, says the Azerbaijani analysts Parvin Alizada, a protest turned into clashes between the believers and policemen.

According to EurasiaNet, in 2011 the leader of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA) Movsum Samedov accused Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev of standing behind the closure of mosques, the efforts to impose a ban on the azan, the persecution of women for wearing hijab.

Samedov compared President Aliyev with the Caliph Yazid ibn Mu’awiya, who is hated by the Shiites. Under the cries of the IPA members, chanting “Allahu Akbar,” Samedov called on Azerbaijanis “to rise up and put an end to the despotic regime.”

Immediately after these claims Samedov, with a number of activists and IPA deputies, were arrested. Analyst Shahin Abbasov says that the registration of IPA was canceled in 1995 after the first arrests of party leaders on charges of spying for Iran and plotting a coup. Azerbaijani media usually mark this party as “pro-Iran.”

Iran’s Influence

Against this background, relations between Tehran and Baku deteriorated steadily. This deterioration had taken place due to several factors. Among them is Azerbaijan’s concerns about Iran’s religious and political expansion, as well as dissatisfaction of Iran with the close cooperation of Azerbaijan with Israel and the US.

Several years ago a rift in relations started growing between Tehran and Baku. Baku accused Tehran of spying and preparing acts of terrorism. Iran blamed Azerbaijan in cooperating with Israeli intelligence and insulting ideals and leaders of Iranian Islamic Revolution.

In February 2012, the Ambassador of Azerbaijan in Iran received a note of protest asking his country to “stop anti-Iranian activity by Israeli intelligence carried on Azerbaijani territory.” Iran’s Foreign Ministry said that the terrorists involved in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists moved freely throughout the territory of Azerbaijan with the support of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad.

Political analyst Zardusht Alizadeh told the Times, that the activity of spy networks in Azerbaijan is an “obvious secret.” “We all know that they are here. It is not known just how much they are paying to Azerbaijani authorities as a bribe,” said Alizadeh.

Tehran also sees that Azerbaijan is developing a hostile attitude towards it, which is influenced by Baku’s very close relations with US and European countries. For example, experts note that the US built two radar stations in Azerbaijan: one in the south, to monitor Iran, the second in the north to control Russia.

In May 2012, Iran withdrew its Ambassador Mohammad Bagher Bahrami from Azerbaijan after Shiite clerics criticized Baku for hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, which led to further deterioration of relations between the two countries.

Another reason behind that diplomatic rift was the fury of Tehran caused by insulting spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during anti-Iranian protests in Baku. Officials in Tehran blamed Baku for “systematic anti-Iranian propaganda in the media.”

Religious Tensions

As the London Times says, the tensions between Tehran and Baku are now growing. Azerbaijanis are getting annoyed by the Iranian arrogance and their attempts to expand Iranian influence in Azerbaijan by strengthening Shiite religious sentiment.

The research fellow of the Azerbaijani Institute for Oriental Studies Akram Rahimli notes that recently there has been a systematic pressure and threats from the spiritual leaders and the Iranian leadership against Azerbaijan. He accuses the Iranian authorities of supporting the TV channel “Sahar-2,” which is engaged in propaganda against the independence of the Azerbaijani state, the elimination of secular government, and creating conditions for the establishment of an Islamic regime in Azerbaijan.

“Periodically, Iranian media reported on the persecution of believers in Azerbaijan, closing and destruction of mosques, and the arrests of Azerbaijani Muslim leaders, using the Azerbaijani citizens who receive financial support from Iran,” Rahimli states. Azerbaijani officials claim that these actions of the Iranian authorities are directed against Azerbaijani statehood and independence. According to them, religious preachers promoting Iranian interests in Azerbaijan receive financial and spiritual support from Iran.

Analyst Alizadeh says that these people are propagandizing Iranian superiority, but not Islam. Azerbaijani authorities periodically arrest persons suspected of having links with Iran. Baku accuses them of Shiite propaganda in order to weaken the state of Azerbaijan and annex it to Iran as its province. Moreover, the Azerbaijani authorities are very nervous as a result of Hizbullah’s activity against Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani media some time ago discussed the threat of the Hizbullah to capture the Azerbaijani Consulate in Tabriz, Iran. Hizbullah is actively penetrating Azerbaijan, says analyst Alizadeh, through some of the young people who have been trained in Iranian spiritual universities and bribed by Iranian special services to promote Iranian religious fanaticism in Azerbaijan. “Members of Hizbullah penetrate Azerbaijan under the guise of scientists, entrepreneurs, students, doctors, merchants, believers; the field of their activity is very wide,” states Alizadeh, “using their positions in these spheres, they are trying to influence the minds of our citizens.”

Azerbaijani experts also accused the Iranian Ayatollah Fazil Lenkorani of issuing a fatwa on killing the Azerbaijani writer RafiqTaghi for his article “Europe and Us.” “It was a warning to Azerbaijani society that Iranian religious intelligence, if necessary, is able to carry out their goals in Azerbaijan,” says Alizadeh.

On the other hand, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Iran, Hassan Firouzabadi, commented on the religious policy of Baku saying, “If the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev will not change his policy towards Islam, then his fate will be black and grim.”

According to the Day.Az, Azerbaijani analyst Vafa Guluzade — known for its pro-Western orientation — states, “In the current situation, Iran would consider it an enormous success, if it could inflame an Islamic revolution in Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan became an Islamic state.”

New Threats to Azerbaijan

As for new threats to the secular Azerbaijani authorities, local analyst Shahin Abbasov states, “Today, when the ranks of the secular opposition in Azerbaijan get in confusion, criticism of the authorities turns to Islam as a unifying principle.”

“In the reign of Ilham Aliyev, traditional opposition was crushed and turned into a marginalized group of dissidents, but the Islamists moved forward,” said another analyst Arif Yunusov. But according to Yunusov, the contradictions between the sects and the lack of charismatic leader means that Islamic activists are unlikely, in the foreseeable future, to play a more prominent role in the Azerbaijani politics.

“So far, the government is able to keep Islamic activists under control,” Hajizadeh thinks. “In contrast to the traditional opposition, the West will not actively protect the Islamists.”

For example, for some time, Azerbaijani authorities were able to solve the problem of growing Sunni religious opposite groups through supporting the Shiite expansion into Sunni areas and pressing-out radical Sunnis into neighboring Dagestan, Russia.

But today Sunni activists flow to Syria to join ISIL ranks, and Azerbaijani authorities do not actively resist this trend. “According to local media, the war in Syria involves about 300-400,” says the head of the Center for Political and Economic Studies Far Centre, Hikmet Hajizadeh. This factor also causes irritation in Iran.

Azerbaijan is inhabited by Shiites and Sunnis who are getting more active and ambitious, a sharp increase in Shiite-Sunni conflict in the Middle East is creating new threats to Azerbaijan.

According to another expert, Araz Alizadeh, the desire to rekindle the Caucasus Sunni-Shiite confrontation would yield in the same scenario that was implemented in Iraq. This scenario of Sunni-Shiite conflict, in his words, is a very scary thing for Azerbaijan.

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