After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan became a battleground for many religious groups, sects and radical organizations. Being a predominantly secular society, Azerbaijanis cautiously watched the appearance of new religious movements. Neighboring countries such as Iran, Turkey as well as the Arab Gulf countries consider Azerbaijan as a strategic arena to expand their influence, often through religion. As a result of the absence of a strict policy toward religious groups, Azerbaijan became a haven for various religious organizations that preach opposite and contradictory ideas. Moreover, representatives of various sects clash with each other over influence in the country. For the past couple of years, the struggle between Shiites supported by Iran and Salafis (mostly supported from the North Caucasus and the Arab world) has intensified.
Salafis Encroach on Azerbaijan’s Shiites
Azerbaijan is a Muslim country where roughly 75% of the population is Shiite, with the remainder Sunnis. The decades of co-existence between the two branches of Islam in Azerbaijan created a fragile balance that neither mainstream Shiites nor Sunnis wish to break. Moreover, Soviet repression against all branches of Islam put the Shiites and Sunnis of Azerbaijan in similar predicaments, providing them with shared experiences. Meanwhile, after centuries of development, Islam in Azerbaijan became a culture and tradition rather than strictly a religion. Although most Azerbaijanis zealously call themselves Muslims, they hardly observe any pillars of Islam. Local people visit sacred places called pirs, along with graveyards of “saints,” rather than mosques, where they give money and offer sacrifices. The official corrupted clergy do not discourage such behavior since it benefits them in various ways, including financially.
The appearance of Salafis in the country, however, broke this delicate balance. Salafis first started to preach against the pirs and saint worship, calling such practices acts counter to Islam. They do not recognize the official Shiite clergy and accuse them of conducting an Iranian policy. Moreover, they consider Shiites as heretics and call for purifying Islam in Azerbaijan. In many instances, Salafis employ violence in order to bring attention or to show their adherents the “right” path. Thus, for the last couple of years, Salafis have attacked pirs and destroyed them in several instances, angering the local population. However, despite the population’s hostility, the number of Salafis is increasing every year. By unofficial accounts, the number of Salafis reached 25,000 by the end of 2006, while 15 years ago they were non-existent in the country (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 2006; RFE/RL, August 10).
The northern region of Azerbaijan remains one of the areas where the Salafi movement has found promising ground. The media has reported several times on the existence of a Salafi extremist organization called the “Forest Brothers.” The organization was involved in distributing religious literature, attacks on law enforcement officials and the murder of several policemen in Gusar region of Azerbaijan and in the capital (Day.az, March 29). Occasionally, law enforcement agencies report on attacks on police by “Wahabbis” who refuse to comply with Azerbaijani laws. On September 26, for example, two police officers were wounded by a member of a Salafi organization. Authorities immediately started another crackdown on Salafi cells in the region. Anti-terrorist groups arrived in the region from Baku and began intensive searches for suspects. A number of people belonging to Salafi cells were subsequently detained and arrested (Turan News Agency, September 27).
At the same time, every month police and Ministry of National Security officials conduct searches in the homes of Salafis for forbidden literature and illegal weapons. In April 2007, for example, 16 Salafis were arrested for illegal propaganda (Day.az, April 18). Many Azerbaijani Salafis sympathize with the Chechen cause and some have even been involved in military actions there (Terrorism Monitor, July 1, 2005). The first Salafi missionaries arrived in Azerbaijan from the North Caucasus in the mid-1990s, with the majority coming from Chechnya and Dagestan where Salafism had influence (Terrorism Monitor, July 1, 2005).
In Azerbaijan, there are diverging views among the public whether Salafism is a threat to the country. While law enforcement agencies repeatedly warn of the Salafi danger, other government agencies do not consider it much of a threat. Hidayat Orujev, the head of the State Committee for Working with Religious Organizations (SCWRO), believes that “there are few Wahabbi cells in the country, and they do not represent danger” (Day.az, September 27). Indeed, most of the time law enforcement agencies as well as the media inflate the danger posed by Salafis, often sensationalizing and hyping crimes where Salafism may have played a role.
It is also important to mention that the police respond intolerantly to adherents of Salafism. In the Zagatal region of Azerbaijan (a hotbed of the Salafi movement in Azerbaijan), for example, police allegedly burned and shaved the beards of Salafis. Many Salafis are brutally beaten and humiliated, and forced to come for “beard” check-ups to the police department every day (Turan News Agency, September 11). It appears that these harsh practices help to incite Salafis to undertake attacks against security services.
Overall, the government is playing a dangerous game with Salafis in Azerbaijan. The government does not, for instance, forbid Salafi preaching or close Salafi mosques. They do, however, prevent Salafism from expanding unchecked. Many analysts believe that the government artificially inflates the Salafi threat to distract the population away from its own inadequacies, and in fact employs Salafi adherents to irritate Iran and help curb Iranian influence in Azerbaijan.
Iran Monitoring Salafi Expansion in Azerbaijan
Salafi expansion in Azerbaijan is being closely monitored by Iran. The Iranian government and clergy are actively seeking ways to expand its influence over Azerbaijan and halt further Salafi incursions. Besides humanitarian assistance in refugee camps, exporting religious literature and TV broadcasting, Iranian authorities create and support radical organizations in the country. A branch of the Hezbollah organization that was closely related to the Iranian special services was active in Azerbaijan in the second half of the 1990s . This branch was accused by the government of assassinating the famous academician Ziya Bunyadov in 1997 and was neutralized after unprecedented pressure by the authorities.
The failure of Hezbollah, however, did not stop other pro-Iranian terrorist organizations from emerging. In January 2007, Azerbaijani authorities announced the arrests of a group of 17 people headed by Said Dadashbeyli. The radical organization, called the Northern Army of the Mahdi, was formed with a purpose to fight against the United States and Israel, and to create a separate Sharia-ruled country. Allegedly, the heads of the organization kept secret contacts with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp. Thus, one of the leaders of the organization met with a member of the Corp in Iran’s Qom city where he was allegedly offered financial support. Meanwhile, the members of the Northern Army of the Mahdi received military training in Iran (Turan News Agency, January 15). The group has also been accused of racketeering, armed assault, treason, drug dealing and a coup attempt. Some newspapers pointed out that U.S. intelligence agencies actively participated in neutralizing this radical organization (Yeni Musavat, January 29). According to these reports, the U.S. government is concerned that the Iranian special services are expanding their influence in Azerbaijan, possibly in order to gain leverage over the United States should Washington attempt to attack Iran.
A further sign demonstrating Iran’s influence in Azerbaijan is an incident that occurred in mid 2006. Journalist Rafig Tagi published an article in Senet newspaper titled “Europe and Us.” The article claimed that Islam did not bring any positive developments to “progress,” and his argument divided Azerbaijani society. Immediately after publication, Iran-supported rallies and protests were organized in some Shiite-dominated villages of Azerbaijan. During the rallies, protesters called for the murder of Tagi. Meanwhile, Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the deaths of Rafig Tagi and Samir Sadaqatoglu, the editor of the newspaper. Authorities jailed the journalists, fearing possible assassinations and a spark of terrorism by Iranian-supported organizations. This case was used by Iranian authorities and the clergy to show their influence over the religious situation in Azerbaijan and the ability to affect government policy.
At the present stage, radical Shiite and Sunni groups do not pose a serious threat to Azerbaijan. The tradition of secularism in the country is strong. Nevertheless, the situation could change. Azerbaijani government agencies do not have a unified approach to handling religious organizations in the country. Meanwhile, there is a hidden competition between the state committee and the official clergy for control and registration of religious organizations.
At the same time, police use brutal force in dealing with many radical organizations, rejecting the process of negotiation. Unfortunately, none of these agencies look at the social aspects that cause people to join radical organizations. Identity crises, dissatisfaction with the current regime, existence of an ideological vacuum and poverty are the main reasons that bring youth to radical organizations in Azerbaijan. As time passes, it is believed that more and more young people will join potentially violent groups in the country. If this trend continues, sectarian violence could break out and lead to more instances of terrorism in Azerbaijan.
1. Yunusov, Arif, “Islam in Azerbaijan,” Baku, Azerbaijan: 2004.