Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 37

While local and international analysts continue to debate the pluses and minuses of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliev’s January trip to Iran, the non-governmental research organization Far Center, based in Baku has released the results of its recent survey on religious freedom in the country. The findings shocked many Azerbaijan-watchers.

According to this survey, titled “Religion and Freedom of Religion in Azerbaijan after September 11” and sponsored by the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, almost one-quarter (23.2%) of the Azerbaijani population supports the “governance of the country by the norms of Shariat (Islamic laws)” (Zerkalo, February 12). Another 28.9 % of the respondents welcomed the idea of applying Islamic norms to their family lives. These numbers seem disturbingly high for secular Azerbaijan.

The survey was conducted from September 20 though October 10, 2004, and interviewed 1,200 people, randomly selected from the cities of Baku, Ganja, Gazakh, Tovuz, Sheki, Khachmaz, Guba, Goychay, Mingechevir, Saatli, Lenkoran, and Masalli. The respondents in all areas, except Baku were interviewed on a one-on-one basis, while in Baku they were contacted by telephone.

The survey also asked the respondents whether they consider themselves “believers” or “non-believers,” with 96.7% of the respondents choosing “believers.” At the same time, only 19.9% of the respondents said that they pray regularly. Turan News Agency suggested this paradox reflected the “poor institutionalization of the religious sphere in the country” (Turan, February 16).

The majority of Azerbaijanis also did not seem to show much affection toward their religious leaders. According to the survey, only 13.5% of the respondents considered a religious leader as an “authority” for themselves. The Supreme Leader of the Islamic community in Azerbaijan, Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazadeh, received the highest levels of confidence among other respected religious leaders (4.1%).

The survey showed a high tolerance among the Azerbaijanis towards other faiths. For example, 41% of the respondents would not mind much if a member of their family married a non-Muslim, and 33.5% of the respondents accepted the idea of having a non-Muslim president in the country. Similarly, 23.9% of the interviewees did not condemn citizens who convert from Islam to other religions.

Questions on the relations between Islam and democracy provided an interesting perspective on the general situation with Islam in Azerbaijan. Some 45.9% of the respondents firmly answered that democracy suits Azerbaijan, although it is a Muslim country. When asked what hinders the development of democracy in Islamic countries, 27.8% of the respondents pointed to corruption in the government; only 6.3% linked this with the culture of the people.

The survey, although questionable on several points, seems to have considerably clarified many aspects of the development of religion in Azerbaijan. Many international and local political analysts have focused on the rise of Islamic tendencies in the country, suggesting that Islam has become a powerful answer to the post-Soviet ideological vacuum. Indeed, in the past decade, the secular government has been worried about the growing number of mosques built in the country and the rising number of youth who visit these mosques. In 2001, then-President Heydar Aliev even established a State Committee on Religious Affairs, charged with overseeing the general situation with the religious communities in the country. The government seemed particularly concerned about the activity of radical Islamic (Wahhabi) and non-traditional religious sects.

In the fall of 2003, another point of concern for the government came from the religious community, when Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, the imam of the Juma mosque in Baku, used his sermons to draw support for the opposition candidate in the presidential elections. The government called it religious interference into politics and closed the mosque, sending a firm signal to other religious communities that it would not tolerate religious groups crossing that line.

For now, the government seems to hold firm control over the religious situation in Azerbaijan. However, the majority of experts also believe that the rise of Islamic radicalism is inevitable, given the poor socio-economic situation in the country and popular disappointment with Western policies that damage Azerbaijan’s national interests, such as U.S. sanctions on Azerbaijan (Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act). Azerbaijanis also are disturbed by U.S. aid to the separatist Karabakh regime, and the international community’s inability to force Armenia to liberate occupied Azerbaijani territories.

Azerbaijan, a country with a secular form of governance, is quite proud of its history of separating church and state, and its leaders fear any kind of Islamic revolution. Because of this, the Azerbaijani government and people have always looked toward the Turkish example of secularism as a role model for its own development as opposed to Iranian theocracy. In fact, Azerbaijan has been at odds with Iran for the most part of 1990s, due to Tehran’s funding of various Islamic groups and parties in Azerbaijan.