Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 8

By Igor Rotar

Azerbaijan is the only Muslim republic in the former Soviet Union where the Shiite branch of Islam is dominant. Various estimates put the number of Shiites at between 60 and 70 percent of the republic’s Muslims. Geographically speaking, the Shiites form a majority in the southern oblasts bordering Iran, in central Azerbaijan and in Baku. Sunnis predominate in northern and western Azerbaijan. Another interesting feature of Azerbaijan is that the Caucasus Spiritual Board of Muslims, headed by sheik Ul’ Islam Pashe-zade, exerts an influence on both Shiites and Sunnis. Traditionally, the head of this spiritual board is a Shiite and his deputy a Sunni. Interestingly, unlike in most Muslim countries, Shiites and Sunnis often worship in the same mosque.

At the start of perestroika, many experts, mindful of the experience of the Islamic revolution in Shiite Iran, assumed that Azerbaijan would become a stronghold for Islamists in the former Soviet Union. And indeed, in the atmosphere of unrest in the late 1980s, Iranian preachers were very active in the countryside around Baku, in Nakhichevan and Lenkoran (the so-called Muslim belt); in the windows of some homes and small shops you could see portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and similar symbols. According to the local media at the time Tehran spent around 800,000 dollars on propagandizing their ideology in Azerbaijan (1).

This wave quickly receded, however. Today only a tiny section of the republic’s population is sympathetic to the Iranian model of development. I believe that there are two factors which explain this phenomenon. First, the republic’s population is more secularized than that of most Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union. The development of the oil industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries prompted a massive cultural expansion into the region by the West. At the beginning of the 20th century Baku was reminiscent of a typical European city. Interestingly, the national intelligentsia at the time inclined towards Western, European culture, setting it off against the spiritual heritage of the Islamic world. It was in Azerbaijan, for example, that the first European opera house in the Muslim world was established. Interestingly, in the short period of independence from 1918-1920 the Azeri state was Turkist in orientation, highly secular and comparable with Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey.

A second equally important factor impeding the spread of the Islamic movement in Azerbaijan are the traditional differences between the Persians and the Azeris. Since the beginning of the 19th century, the Azeri people have been divided by a state border running along the river Araks. Today 25 million Azeris live in Iran and 7.5 million in independent Azerbaijan. In Iran the Azeris do not have the right to educate their children in their native language at school, and the number and print-run of publications in the Azeri language is limited. To many Azeris on both sides of the Araks, this is ethnic discrimination.

In the early 1990s the idea of annexing that part of Iran where their compatriots lived was quite popular in Azerbaijan. Separatist feeling was high among some Iranian Azeris as well. Fearing that Azerbaijan may become a strong state, and that this would greatly increase the danger of separatism among Iranian Azeris, Tehran adopted a policy of supporting Yerevan–albeit covertly–during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. Naturally, this further exacerbated the tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan.

The Islamic tendency in Azerbaijan is linked with sympathies with Iran, while the secular, nationalist trend focuses on Kemalist Turkey and the West. Anti-Iranian feeling among a significant number of Azeris lay behind the fact that in the early 1990s almost all the anticommunist movements joined forces to form the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, which declared allegiance to the idea of a secular, independent, democratic state founded on Azeri political traditions. Its leaders hoped to inculcate in the minds of the population the values of the Azeri democratic republic (1918-1920). This idea was particularly noticeable when the Popular Front was in power (from summer 1992 to spring 1993). Turkism, as interpreted by the liberal nationalist establishment in Azerbaijan, focused on the secular ideas of Kemal Ataturk and his successors, and completely ruled out any religious involvement in politics. The academic Andrei Polonsky notes that it was the Popular Front that buried the idea of the “Islamization” of Azerbaijan. The Muslim model was pushed out by the nationalist, pro-Turkey and pro-Western model, which seemed much more effective in the early 1990s (2). Characteristic of this period was the fact that it was practically impossible to find in the government-controlled media any of the anti-American rhetoric so widespread in other countries of the Muslim world. Writing at the end of the 1990s, Khikmet Gadzhizade, an intellectual sympathetic to the democrats and pan-Turkists, a member of the editorial board of Central Asia magazine and vice-president of the Far Center in Baku, fondly remembered the events of the beginning of the decade: “Society was in raptures over capitalism, which was supposed to start as soon as parliament passed the relevant laws… Margaret Thatcher’s visit in the autumn of 1992 caused a great deal of excitement. Society almost unanimously considered the Iranian regime a hotbed of obscurantism. And most politicians and members of the intelligentsia called for the unification of the 7.5 million citizens of the republic of Azerbaijan and the 25 million Azeris living in Iranian Azerbaijan. A united Azerbaijan became an integral part of the national idea” (3).

Notably, even the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan was not seen as a religious war in the republic. The Azeri propaganda machine hardly ever used Islamic rhetoric, and the republic’s mufti Pashe-zade refused to declare a jihad against Armenia.

Nevertheless, ideological influence on Azerbaijan from Iran should not be ruled out altogether. In the mid-1990s, Iranian television programs were rebroadcast in the republic. Their anti-American and anti-Zionist rhetoric irritated Western-oriented Baku, however, and the broadcasts were terminated. Tehran undertook another attempt to introduce the Iranian model for development in 1993, when hundreds of thousands of refugees were forced to cross the Araks river to escape persecution by the Karabakh army. In the refugee camps funded by the Iranian authorities life was regulated in accordance with the Shari’a. For example, women were obliged to wear the hijab (a scarf covering the hair and neck). However, Baku decided that such practice was unacceptable for Azeri citizens and rejected aid from its southern neighbor.

Realizing that it would not succeed in coming to an agreement with the Azeri authorities, Tehran decided to concentrate its efforts on the opposition within the republic. Makhir Dzhavadov, the brother of the commander of Azerbaijan’s OPON (special police) who led a revolt against the Azeri authorities and was killed fighting the republican army, has been living in Iran for several years. Dzhavadov has formed his own party in Iran, Renaissance, and plans to raise an army to liberate Karabakh. The main proponent of the Iranian model in Azerbaijan itself was the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA), founded in 1991 in the village of Nordaran, not far from Baku. The party was officially registered in 1992. Its leader, Al’ Akram Khadzhi, is a typical representative of the post-Soviet lumpen-intelligentsia (a rather rare case for Baku); a philologist by training, he worked for some time stacking shelves for a food store (4). At the heart of the party’s ideology was the conviction that only Islam was capable of playing a constructive role in the creation of an independent Azerbaijan. Al’ Akram Khadzhi believed that the republic would not find a way out of the crisis until its leaders adopted Islamic values and Islamic ideas of state-building. The ideological situation in Azerbaijan was clearly depicted in two aspects of the IPA’s propaganda–its anti-Turkic and anti-Semitic elements. Viewing any form of nationalism as shirk (that is, allegiance to anything other than Allah, violating Islam’s strict monotheism), Azerbaijan’s Islamists rejected the ideas of pan-Turkism, regarding them as dangerous and utopian. Pan-Turkism, they believed, was harmful because it was becoming a substitute for the universal model for human communion–the umma.

The leaders of the IPA thought that Islamic society should become a barrier to the spread of the American model of civilization, under which everything was leveled out and which essentially was anticultural. At the same time, it was not the West that was seen as the chief enemy of the Muslim world, but the international Masonic conspiracy with its roots in Israel. The party organized a “Jerusalem Day” protest, involving the burning of the Israeli flag.

By the end of 1994, the party had set up branches in more than 70 districts and towns, with a total membership of about 50,000. Training began of Islamic brigades made up of young Shiite Azeris (5). This activity, however, met with a sharp response from the Azeri authorities. In 1995 the Islamic party’s application to renew its registration was turned down, and its activities were judged as hostile to the interests of the state. In 1996 the party leadership was arrested and in early 1997 charges were brought against them. The party’s leading lights were accused of spying for Iran and attempting a coup d’état. These people supposedly formed the backbone of the “guardians of the Islamic revolution” in Azerbaijan. The court sentenced the party leaders to ten years’ imprisonment. After the Islamic party was routed Iran’s influence on the political situation in Azerbaijan was effectively reduced to a minimum. The Azeri authorities banned the broadcasting of Iranian television programs, and Iranian missionaries were stripped of the right to work on Azeri territory. In January 1997 the republic’s parliament passed an amendment to the law on religious freedom stipulating that “foreign nationals and stateless persons do not have the right to engage in religious propaganda on the territory of the republic of Azerbaijan”. Today only 10 percent of mosques in Azerbaijan are built with Iranian aid (6); the influence of Tehran on the religious situation in the country cannot therefore be said to be significant.

Various fundamentalist groups present considerably greater danger to the Azeri authorities. So-called “Wahhabism” enjoys almost no influence among Azeris themselves, but is quite popular (albeit relatively speaking) among the republic’s ethnic minorities, particularly the Lezgins. There are almost equal numbers of Lezgins in Dagestan and in northern Azerbaijan. The Lezgin problem became very acute after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when this single ethnic group was divided by a national border. The Lezgin movement which emerged as a result, Sadval, demanded the creation of a united Lezginstan within the Russian Federation.

It may be assumed that tensions between Lezgins and Azeris are at the root of the popularity of fundamentalism among some Lezgins, who are using it in their attempt to liberate themselves from Azerbaijan. In 1996 Asul Kasymov–a member of the Union of Muslims of Russia and one of the closest aides of its chairman Nadyr Khachilaev–declared himself imam of all the Lezgins. However, his period of activity was brief: Baku accused Kasymov of attempting to provoke conflict between Azerbaijan and Russia. Azeri investigators alleged that Kasymov’s people were meant to open fire on pilgrims undertaking the hajj to Mecca as they crossed the border between Azerbaijan and Russia, in order to provoke an exchange of fire between Russian and Azeri border guards. Kasymov was arrested and given a long prison sentence.

In July 2000 the Azeri intelligence services arrested the fundamentalist group Warriors of Islam, made up of Lezgins and Avars from Russia and Azerbaijan. Its members murdered the famous Azeri psychic Etibar Ekrchin, and attacked a Krishna community. The group’s members were allegedly planning to overthrow the Azeri authorities and establish an Islamic state in the republic.

The situation is further complicated by the war in Chechnya. On the whole, the people of Azerbaijan sympathize with their fellow Muslims in Chechnya who are fighting the federal troops. The head of the Caucasus Spiritual Board of Muslims sheik Ul’ Islam Pashe-zade sent an angry letter to the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin demanding an end to the mass murder of Muslims. Reports have already begun appearing in the Russian press suggesting that Chechen fighters are being treated in hospitals in Azerbaijan; I am convinced that this information is correct.

It seems that the Chechen resistance movement attaches great importance to the “Azerbaijan connection.” It can hardly be coincidental that the Chechen bigwig Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev has been living almost permanently in Baku since the beginning of the current military campaign. It should not be forgotten that during the first Russian-Chechen war Nukhaev was appointed head of the foreign intelligence service by Dudaev, and raised funds abroad to help the Chechen rebels. Some reports say that attempts are being made to set up a transit base for ferrying mujaheddin into Chechnya in the village of Zakataly, populated mainly by Avars and Lezgins.

The situation today should not be overdramatized, however. The question of territorial integrity is extremely important for Azerbaijan, so Baku simply has no choice but to show solidarity with the Kremlin on the Chechen issue. And for now, at least, Baku is managing to deal with local Islamic radicals sympathetic to the Chechen resistance movement before they become a formidable force.