Azerbaijan: Independent Islam and the State
Europe Report N°191
25 Mar 2008
Claims that major terrorist acts were foiled in Azerbaijan at the end of 2007 have prompted discussion about the extent to which Islamic extremism is a genuine threat in the oil-rich land. Azerbaijan is a secular state with an overwhelmingly moderate (predominantly Shiite) Muslim population. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union and independence in 1991, independent Sunni and Shiite groups have emerged which refuse the spiritual authority of the official clergy. Some are political, but very few, if any, appear intent on employing violence to overthrow the state. The government, however, expresses concern about these “independents”, and tries to control them, including through repression. Its strategy risks radicalising peaceful activists and believers.
After 1991 Azerbaijan became a target of religious movements vying for influence. Missionaries and charities from Iran, the Middle East and Turkey, as well as individuals from Russia’s north Caucasus came to proselytise. Some reportedly were linked with militant Islamist networks, including al-Qaeda. Many were expelled, and only Turkish groups now continue to work relatively unhindered by the state.
Largely inspired and funded by foreign groups, independent religious communities have grown much more rapidly than official mosques. Salafism, largely unheard of in Azerbaijan twenty years ago, has gained a foothold mainly in Baku and the north. Groups of Shiites who refuse to recognise the state-promoted spiritual leadership have also become more numerous, but only a few could be considered political and even fewer militant. Nevertheless, the government is suspicious of all independent expressions of Islam. It tries to control such groups through the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations (SCWRO) and the Caucasus Board of Muslims (CBM) and generally represses manifestations of independence rapidly. Peaceful followers of groups outside CBM’s control are by their own accounts regularly harassed and detained.
The government justifies its tough approach by citing a need to combat extremism and prevent terrorism, and it claims significant success. In the early 1990s, the state was relatively weak, and some extremist groups were apparently active. As the state has strengthened, it says it has become much more proficient at arresting and sentencing extremists. Whether those so treated actually had operational links with extremists is doubted by independent observers.
The government has employed excessive means to control peaceful religious activities and trials of alleged extremists are often held behind closed doors using evidence collected under duress. Independent religious communities as well as members of the political opposition say the authorities exaggerate the Islamic terrorist threat to gain the West’s sympathy and tolerance for its undemocratic proclivities. The government’s tactics at least run the danger of pushing otherwise peaceful groups towards jihad; radicalisation, if not yet overt violence, is becoming visible among a minority of the Salafi community. The challenge is to stop any groups bent on violence, while ensuring freedom of religion.
The government has taken some steps to strengthen cooperation with believers by improving religious education for young clerics and reforming CBM. It is trying to cultivate a home-grown Islam, based on local values and traditions, to halt encroachment of foreign beliefs, but it should extend its efforts to include non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and independent communities in a broad debate on state and religion. Most importantly, it needs to devise a method of dealing with independent groups that does not criminalise them and is more respectful of religious rights.
Baku/Tbilisi/Brussels, 25 March 2008