Secular Nationalism Versus Political Islam in Azerbaijan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 3

Being one of only four countries in the world with a majority of Shiites, Azerbaijan represents an interesting case of secular Shiism surrounded by countries and regions where theocracy and religious movements (both Shiite and Sunni) seem to thrive. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this South Caucasus country witnessed a civil war, several coup d’état, war with its western neighbor Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and the rise to power of its former Communist era leader Heydar Aliyev. What puts the country on the international map is that it has a substantial amount of oil reserves – both on and off-shore – and that Azerbaijan is a pro-Western country neighboring troubled regions of the North Caucasus and Islamic Iran.

While the majority of Azerbaijan’s approximately eight million citizens are followers of the Shiite branch of Islam, there are substantial Sunni communities in the north and the west of the country. The religious cleavage between Sunnis and Shiites is reinforced by the fact that most of the non-Azeri minorities (such as the Lezgin) are Sunnis who live in the north of the country, neighboring Dagestan.

Perhaps as a direct result of Azerbaijan’s Soviet legacy, Islam as a political force has not flourished despite increasing interaction with Iran. Moreover, historically speaking, Azerbaijan has had a nationalist orientation rather than a religious one. The close ethnic ties between Azeris and Turks played an important role in Azerbaijan’s adoption of the Turkish model of strong nationalism and secularism (also known as Kemalism). The short lived presidency of the mercurial and Turkic irredentist Abulfazl Elchibey in 1992-93 witnessed the rise to power of the Azerbaijani Popular Front and increasing cooperation with Ankara. The coming to power of Heydar Aliyev in 1993 brought a more balanced orientation in Azerbaijan’s relations with its neighbors. Having been part of the former Soviet elite, Aliyev was able to gradually control the political scene and in due course stabilized the country’s domestic and foreign policies.

The absence of influential indigenous Islamic militant groups in Azerbaijan could also be explained by severe government crackdowns on all vestiges of dissent – Islamic or otherwise. For instance, the Azeri government moved quickly to neutralize the challenge from the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA) by banning the movement and incarcerating its leaders. The government also cracked down on other radical groups such as Jeyshullah (Army of God), a small radical group determined to carry out attacks against western targets (including the U.S. embassy) in Baku. [1]

Notwithstanding the severe government crackdown on Islamic organizations, the past several years have seen an increased amount of Islamic activity. The local media has blamed this resurgence on the failure of the government’s pro-Western policies. [2] Another plausible explanation is that both the loyal opposition and the government have done little to address the social and economic problems in the country, particularly outside Baku. The riots that took place in Nardaran (a village, 10 miles northwest of Baku) in June 2002 were indicative of rural discontent with the secular Azeri regime.[3] The leader of the movement, Alikaram Aliyev (also known as Nardaran Aliyev) was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison. The fact that Nardaran is one of the holy sites for Shiite Muslims (a wife of the 7th imam is buried in the village mosque), raised more concerns about the increased opposition to the government by religious groups.

Nevertheless, and despite the fact that the leader of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus (SBMC), sheikh ul-Islam Allahsukur Pasazada is an Azeri and the SBMC is headquartered in Baku, Azerbaijan remains committed to secularism. In June 2001, Heydar Aliyev issued a decree announcing the creation of the State Committee on Religious Affairs (SCRA) which was put in charge of oversight of all the religious activities in the country and which passed regulations limiting the amount of money channeled to local religious groups from foreign sources and specifically from Iran. [4]

In December 2003, a new showdown between the government and a Muslim cleric in Baku threatened to radicalize the religious fundamentalists. The confrontation occurred when the government tried to shut down the Jumaa mosque and arrested the imam, Ilqar Ibrahimoglu on the grounds that he took part in demonstrations against the irregularities reported during the presidential elections. Ilqar Ibrahimoglu has always been critical of the government and his Friday sermons attracted many young Azeris, to the extent that some papers even called him the Azerbaijani Khomeini. [5] The increasing popularity of a dissident religious leader likely prompted the government to take drastic actions before Ibrahimoglu was transformed into a religious icon and a national leader.

Aside from mainstream Shi’a Islamism, there are two other Islamist tendencies in Azerbaijan. The first is the so-called Wahhabi movement which has some adherents among Sunni Lezgin minorities in the north and some parts of the capital Baku. The Wahhabi movement has been active in Chechnya, Dagestan and northern Azerbaijan for over a decade. Most of the radical Islamic groups operating in the North Caucasus are either followers of or funded by Wahhabi movements from overseas. [6]

The presence of strong Wahhabi networks in the north of the country overlaps with the growing nationalist and ethnic sentiments of the Lezgins, thus making it difficult to contain. [7] In July 2004, Azerbaijani news sources reported the arrest of over 200 people who were believed to be followers of the Wahhabi movement in Baku and were accused of plotting a coup d’état against the government under the disguise of training people to fight the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Later in December in a television interview, the chairman of the SCRA, Rafiq Aliyev, estimated that there are about 15,000 Wahhabis operating in Baku alone. [8]

The third form of Islam is an amalgam of popular Islam and Turkic nationalism. A Turkish Islamic movement called Nurcular – the followers of Said Nursi, a scholar who died in 1960 – has established networks in Azerbaijan and has been active in promoting a more Turkic nationalist version of Islam. This movement, which is Sunni in doctrine, is banned in Turkey and the Azerbaijani authorities have kept a close watch on the organization’s activities. [9]

Aside from the “homegrown” and “imported” Islamic movements, Azerbaijan also faces a huge problem in terms of being a transit point for various Islamic movements and terrorist organizations. The wars in Chechnya and Dagestan and the lawlessness that ensued made it possible for many radical Islamic groups from Central Asia and the Middle East to operate in the region and use Azerbaijan as a transit point for the transfer of people and resources to and from the North Caucasus. However the Azerbaijani authorities are adamant that they are combating radical Islamic groups as part of the “War on Terror”. The fact that the country sent troops to Iraq and is actively pursuing, arresting and deporting alleged terrorists attests to Azerbaijan’s desire to be part of the U.S. led coalition and to receive American support even if that means becoming a potential target for al-Qaeda. [10]

The Azeri state apparatus is in tight control of all political and religious activities in the country and ensures that Islamic movements are either closely monitored or supervised by various government agencies. As far as the transit of Islamic fighters through Azerbaijan is concerned, officials in Baku have been in close contact with Russian security agencies to guarantee that the border crossings between Azerbaijan and Dagestan are not exploited by terrorists or radical groups. Whether these promises and guarantees are being duly enforced is anyone’s guess.

In the final analysis, while the threat from Islamic Iran is minimal and perhaps even non-existent, the danger of transnational al-Qaeda linked Islamic groups targeting Azerbaijan is very real. Broadly speaking, there are two reasons to be fearful. Firstly, Azerbaijan remains an extremely important geographic link between the Islamic groups in the North Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. Thus any serious attempts by the Azeri authorities to constrain these links might directly lead to a terrorist attack. Secondly, Azerbaijan’s enthusiastic alignment with the U.S. and the west automatically makes it a potential target for al-Qaeda. Privately Azeri authorities recognize the magnitude of the threat and are terrified of a massive attack on their oil infrastructure. The most troubling aspect of the situation is that they can not do much more to protect against the looming threat.

Asbed Kotchikian is a PhD candidate in political science at Boston University. His areas of interest include the post-Soviet South Caucasus and the Middle East, with a focus on foreign policy, political change and development.


1.”Jeyshullah Chief Sentenced to Life in Prison,” AssA-Irada, October 3, 2000.

2. “The Islamic Factor is Gaining More Weight,” Zerkalo, January 26, 2002.

3. “Did Islamists Organize Nardaran Events?” Azadliq, June 12, 2002.

4. “State Enforces Control Over Religious Entities,” AssA-Irada, July 23, 2001.

5. “Who Benefits from Creating Martyrs of Faith and National Heroes?” Zerkalo, December 6, 2003.

6. “Wahhabis Based in Azerbaijan’s Northern Districts,” Zerkalo, January 4, 2002.

7. “Wahhabis Lay Down the Law in Qusar,” Ekspress, August 2, 2002. (Qusar is a regional center in the northern district of Azerbaijan.)

8. ANS TV, December 28, 2004.

9. “The Web,” Ekho, February 9, 2002.

10. “Arab Newspapers Warn Against Terrorist Attack on Azerbaijan,” Yeni Musavat, October 18, 2004.