The ongoing military operations between Israel and Lebanon have sparked popular protests and heated debates in Azerbaijan. Although a predominantly Muslim country, Azerbaijan prides itself on being a secular country and having strong ties with Israel and the United States. Nevertheless, the high rate of poverty and the influence of foreign radical Islamic groups have resulted in the establishment and gradual growth of Islamic groups in the country.
Right after the launch of the war in Lebanon, the Azerbaijani Islamic Organization for the Freedom of Religion attempted to stage protest marches in front of the Israeli and U.S. Embassies in Baku. Similar action was taken in front of the UN office in Baku. Local police managed to disperse the crowd of about 200 people, yet this did not discourage the group’s members from attempting a second rally. This time, several people were arrested.
The group is headed by Ilgar Ibrahimli, a well-known Shia imam from the Juma mosque, who made news three years ago for advocating on behalf of the opposition candidate in the presidential election and subsequently being evicted from the mosque for using religion in politics. Since then, Ibrahimli has been a loud critic of the Azerbaijani authorities and on several occasion has organized mass rallies to protest the Danish cartoons against the prophet Mohammad, U.S. anti-terror operations, and the presence of Azerbaijani military personnel in Iraq.
On another occasion, the residents of Nardaran, a village about 19 miles northwest of Baku, staged a protest meeting in the village’s central square to criticize Israeli policy in the Middle East. Protestors used slogans such as “Stop aggression! Bush and Israel are full of blood!” Nardaran is one of the most conservative areas in the country, where all women cover their heads and the street signs are in Arabic. Clashes erupted between police forces and the residents of the village in 2002, and since then Nardaran has remained an Islamic stronghold on the outskirts of Baku.
Not all voices in the country, however, offer such emotional shows of support for Muslim solidarity with Lebanon. Several Azerbaijani newspapers, such as Azadliq, Echo, and Zerkalo, have questioned the need to support Lebanon due to the close links between Azerbaijan’s archrival Armenia and official Beirut. In fact, Lebanon has recognized the 1915 Armenian genocide thanks to the lobbying efforts of the Armenian diaspora in Lebanon, while Israel has refused to acknowledge the event for many decades.
“How can ASALA [the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, which targets Turkish diplomats and citizens] and Hezbollah co-exist in one town?” exclaims the popular news portal Day.az, referring to the fact that ASALA is headquartered in Beirut and gets a significant amount of funding from Lebanon.
Similarly, some political experts and analysts believe that Azerbaijan should not take an open stance in the Israeli-Lebanese war due to the strategic importance of Israel to Azerbaijan. Both nations have a long history of warm relations, and there are some 8,900 Jews in Azerbaijan. Israel can serve as a vitally needed voice for Azerbaijan in the United States and Europe by explaining Azerbaijani national interests to foreign policy leaders. Israel’s military and economic expertise could also be very useful for Azerbaijan’s rapidly growing economy.
For these very reasons the Azerbaijani ruling elite has taken a very cautious approach toward the latest conflict. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry has issued a very mild statement about the Israeli-Lebanese war and President Ilham Aliyev decided not to travel to Malaysia to participate in the August 3 emergency session of the heads of state of members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Instead, the lower profile prime minister, Arthur Rasizadeh, was sent to the event.
Similarly, Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazade, head of Muslim clergy in the country, has been criticizing Arab unity since his return from a conference in Tehran, and has reminded the Azerbaijani public that not all Islamic nations have supported Azerbaijan in the ongoing Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
Instead of loud diplomatic statements and openly taking sides, Azerbaijan has so far preferred to send humanitarian assistance to the suffering people of Lebanon. With images of victims, especially children, broadcast on television daily, the people of Azerbaijan are not likely to remain indifferent. Yet the more pragmatic analysts in Azerbaijan believe that Israel is more important to secular Azerbaijan than is Lebanon.
(Day.az, Azadliq, Echo, Zerkalo, AZ-TV1, ANS-TV, Hesabat and Turan News Agency, August 2-11)