Few Azerbaijanis Distinguish Between Sunni and Shia Islam

By Paul Goble
In most Islamic countries where there is a significant Shia population, Muslims are deeply concerned about tensions between this and the Sunni branch of Islam, according to a Pew Forum poll. In Lebanon, 67 percent of the population says that Sunni-Shia tensions are a major concern; in Iraq, 52 percent do; in Afghanistan, 44 percent say that; but in Azerbaijan, where two-thirds of the population are Shia, only 2 percent say that tensions between the two main branches of Islam are either “a very big” or “a moderately big” worry (pewforum.org/2013/11/07/many-sunnis-and-shias-worry-about-religious-conflict/).
What makes Azerbaijan different?  At least three things. First, as a result of Soviet anti-religious policies, few Azerbaijanis fully understand the difference between the two trends in Islam. Having lived much of their lives without religious instruction and with few working mosques, residents of that republic have not had the access to instruction in the differences between the trends.
Indeed, while younger people who have been exposed to more Islamic instruction are more knowledgeable, Azerbaijanis as a whole tend to divide the Muslim congregations in their country by referring to some as “Turkish” and others as “Iranian,” referring less to the doctrinal differences between the two Muslim trends these represent than to the financing behind them.  Turkey built some of the new mosques in Azerbaijan in the 1990s, including some of the largest, and Iran built many of the others.
Second, Sunni-Shia differences are overshadowed in Azerbaijan by nationalism, the result not only of the Armenian occupation of 20 percent of the country, but also of government efforts to promote a largely secular nationalism in the style of modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Consequently, when Azerbaijanis do speak about Sunni-Shia differences, they most often are referring not to divides within their own nation but rather to the divide between themselves and ethnic groups like the Lezgins who are seen as allied to Iran. 
And third, as the Azerbaijani government repeatedly asserts, Azerbaijanis are, as a result of their history, generally more cosmopolitan and religiously tolerant than many other Muslim countries.  Baku has good relations with its own Jewish community and with Israel, and the inter-religious tolerance behind that simultaneously sets Azerbaijan apart from much of the Islamic world and predisposes Azerbaijanis to be tolerant of religious diversity within their own nation.
To say this is not to say that there have not been problems between the Azerbaijani government and Shia parishes.  The authorities have moved against several Shia mosques, but this has had less to do with a doctrinal commitment to the Sunnis than with concerns that these “Iranian” mosques are a potential source of political instability.

And it is also not to say that the current situation will continue forever.  Those born since 1980—and they now are a majority of the population—have been far more exposed to religious instruction, and some of them are, therefore, more closely tied to Sunni or Shia Islam. That reality could have consequences in the future.