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Backgrounder: Islam in Azerbaijan 4 novembre 2007

Posted by Acturca in Caucasus / Caucase, Religion, Turkey / Turquie.

BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit

October 30, 2007 Tuesday

Over 98 per cent of Azerbaijan’s 8.6m population is Muslim, according to Haci Allahsukur Pasazada, chairman of the Board of Muslims of the Caucasus (Turan news agency, 1001 gmt 28 Aug 07).

The rest of the population adheres to Christianity (ethnic Armenians in Nagornyy Karabakh and ethnic Russians), Judaism and other faiths.

Traditionally, religious observance among the Muslim majority has been low. However, there has been a sharp increase in mosque attendance since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Around 70 per cent of Muslims are nominally Shi’i, and 30 per cent Sunni.

While Sunni Muslims mostly live in northern and northwestern regions, Shi’i Muslims are located in central and southern parts of the country. Villages around Baku and in the southern district of Lankaran, which borders Iran, are seen as the stronghold of Shi’ism in Azerbaijan.

Most mosques in Azerbaijan were closed during the period of Communist rule from 1920 to 1991. In the late 1980s, only two large and five smaller mosques were operational in Baku, and only eleven operated elsewhere in the rest of the country.

According to Tadeusz Swietochowski, a US historian who specializes in the modern history and contemporary politics of the South Caucasus, particularly Azerbaijan, during the late 1970s around 1,000 clandestine houses of prayer were in use, and some 300 places of pilgrimage were identifiable.

This was the prelude to the public opening of hundreds of mosques in the following decade, Swietochowski says. (Tadeusz Swietochowski: Azerbaijan: The Heritage of the Past and Trials of Independence. World Policy Journal )

Board of Muslims of the Caucasus

Since Soviet times, the Board of Muslims of the Caucasus has been responsible for administering Islamic activities in Azerbaijan. It has authority over official religious organizations and controls a number of the country’s mosques, to which it appoints imams. It has been headed by Sheikh ul-Islam Haci Allahsukur Pasazada since the late 1980s.

Pasazada has always been regarded as loyal to the government and is not seen as a threat to secular rule. He ensures that Islamic organizations do not interfere with politics.

But on a number of occasions, he has been critical of the US war in Iraq and the West’s policy with regard to Muslim countries.

In June 2007, Pasazada criticized the construction of a wall in Baghdad which was intended to separate the city’s Sunni and Shi’i quarters.

He also expressed support for Tehran in the nuclear standoff and warned the USA against attacking Iran.

« The USA was defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will face the same in Iran, » he said. « Iran has proved to the whole world that it is right. » (Azerbaijani news agency APA, Baku, in Azeri 1526 gmt 4 Jun 07)

Pasazada is also in charge of establishing contacts with Islamic organizations and other Muslim countries and arranging pilgrimages to Mecca.

The board dates back to the first half of the 19th century when Azerbaijan was incorporated into Russia. The post of Sheikh ul-Islam for Shi’i affairs was founded in Tbilisi in 1823 and the post of mufti for Sunni affairs in 1832.

The sheikh officially moved to Baku in 1919 after Azerbaijan gained independence from Tsarist Russia. The board was officially established in 1944 following a decision made by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.

State Committee for Work with Religious Structures

In 2001 the then Azerbaijan president, Heydar Aliyev, established a government agency – the State Committee for Work with Religious Structures (SCWRS) – to monitor and regulate religious activity in the country.

Islamic scholar Rafiq Aliyev was appointed head of the agency. In 2006 Rafiq Aliyev was replaced by Hidayat Orucov, former presidential aide on ethnic issues.

According to a statement posted on the SCWRS website, the committee aims to « carry out state policy in the field of religious activity ». It has also been tasked with « providing a suitable environment in Azerbaijan for practising freedom of religion ».

The committee was given broad powers to control the publication, distribution and importation of religious literature. It also has the power to suspend the activities of religious structures (communities) which it believes are breaking the law.

The SCWRS has carried out re-registration of religious organizations – mosques, churches and communities – since 2001. According to its website, the committee has re-registered a total of 386 religious communities, over 370 of which are Muslim.

Under Rafiq Aliyev, there was overt rivalry between the SCWRS and the Board of Muslims of the Caucasus over control over the decision-making process in the field of religion. However, relations between the two organizations seem to have normalized since Rafiq Aliyev was relieved of his post. (Trend news agency, Baku, in Russian, 1001 gmt 12 Jul 07)

Islamic Party of Azerbaijan

The Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA) was founded in 1991 in Nardaran, a village near Baku that is regarded as a stronghold of conservative Islamic values. Since July 2007 the party has been led by Movsum Samadov.

The IPA advocates stronger ties with neighbouring Iran and has an anti-Western and anti-Israeli stance. During the Danish cartoon crisis in 2006 it called for a boycott of Western goods.

In the mid-1990s Islamic Party leaders were arrested and imprisoned on charges of espionage on behalf of Iran. The party was also accused of encouraging Islamic riots in Nardaran in 2002, in which one person was killed and 16 were injured.

IPA leader Haci Alikram Aliyev was arrested after the riots and the party’s registration was revoked.

The authorities portrayed the unrest as inspired by « foreign powers » and said that villagers used illegally obtained weapons against security forces. But opposition leaders maintained that the main cause of the unrest was the government’s failure to address economic problems.

From 2000, the party was a member of the left-wing Pro-Azerbaijani Forces alliance which also included the left-wing Social Democratic Party, which supports Azerbaijan’s former pro-Moscow president, Ayaz Mutallibov. The alliance split in 2005.

As the party is not registered with the Ministry of Justice, it cannot stand in elections.

Abu Bakr Mosque

Abu Bakr is the most crowded mosque in Azerbaijan during Friday prayers and religious festivals like Ramadan and Id al-Adha. The mosque’s imam, Qamat Suleymanov, is in his mid-30s. He says that over 7,000 believers attend prayers in Abu Bakr on Fridays and many more come during festivals, although he is not sure of the exact numbers.

« I cannot give a precise number. We are not a political party which registers its members and knows the exact number of its supporters, » he said in an interview with Day.az website in July 2007. (Day.az website, Baku, in Russian 21 Jul 07)

The construction of the Abu Bakr mosque was financed by the Kuwaiti foundation Restoration of the Islamic Heritage in 1997-1998. The mosque was registered with the Justice Ministry in 1998 and with the State Committee for Work with Religious Structures in 2002.

Asked why Abu Bakr is popular, particularly with the young generation, Suleymanov said that his mosque preached « original Islam » – something that was new in a traditionally Shi’i Muslim country.

« During the Soviet years, we were far away from the Islamic enlightenment. At that time, Islam and the Koran were used only in funeral wakes as if they served the dead. This was the impression about Islam in the Communist period. However, after the demise of the Soviet regime and the opening of the borders, people began to go abroad to study Islam. When we started our activities in Azerbaijan and invited believers to our mosque, it became something new in the religion, » Day.az quoted him as saying.

Suleymanov himself is a graduate of the Islamic University of Madinah, Saudi Arabia.

Members of the Abu Bakr community stand out in Baku: They grow long beards and wear trousers above the ankle. They are commonly referred to as « Wahhabis » – a term that is commonly associated with radical Islam among Shi’is and in the former Soviet Union.

Abu Bakr congregants call themselves either Ahli-Sunna (or Sunni) or Salafi.

Salafism, which comes from the Arab word Salaf (predecessors or early generations), is a Sunni Islamic school of thought that takes the pious ancestors (Salaf) of early Islam as exemplary models. Salafis view the first three generations of Muslims, who are the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, and the two succeeding generations after them, the Tabi’in and the Taba’ at-Tabi’in, as examples of how Islam should be practised.

Salafism is widespread in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Suleymanov of the Abu Bakr mosque says that growing a beard and wearing trousers above the ankle are the requirements of Islam for Muslim men.

« We want to live in accordance with Islamic law. People think that a beard and short trousers are distinguishing signs of our community. But they are not. Wearing a beard is reflected in both Sunni and Shi’i Islam. It is important to have a beard under the religion. It is not we who invented beards and short trousers. Islam maintains that a beard is a distinguishing sign of a Muslim man, » he told Day.az.

The Abu Bakr imam dismissed as groundless allegations that his mosque was training Islamic extremists. The former head of the State Committee for the Work with Religious Structures, Rafiq Aliyev, had reportedly called the Abu Bakr mosque a « breeding ground of Wahhabism », claiming that 54 Abu Bakr worshippers had gone to hot spots like Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan.

« All these accusations are groundless, » he told Day.az. « You know perfectly well that if we had had such problems, the activities of our community would have been stopped by the authorities long ago. Agree that no government would turn a blind eye to cases when this or that organization trains fighters right under its very nose. »

« Islamic revolution »

Suleymanov also played down warnings about an Iranian-style Islamic revolution in Azerbaijan.

« I do not see any grounds for such a revolution in Azerbaijan, » he said. « Azerbaijan has no forces capable of staging an Islamic revolution, and moreover, there is a lack of foreign support. »

Suleymanov said that his community had no plans to join politics.

« We have no plans to interfere in political processes in Azerbaijan. As a whole, we are against a religion’s interference in politics, » Day.az quoted him as saying. « We serve God and the Fatherland but not the government. Our faith and Fatherland are above all. »

« Wahhabi arrests »

The Azerbaijani authorities reported on 29 October that they had foiled plans by a radical Islamic group to attack several foreign embassies and government buildings in the capital, Baku.

The National Security Ministry issued a statement saying that a « Wahhabi » group had planned to attack embassies of countries that are part of the international anti-terrorist coalition. Britain closed its embassy in Baku and the United States put its embassy on limited operations.

At the same time, APA news agency reported that 10 officers and students of military schools had earlier been arrested and charged with membership of a Wahhabi group. However, the Defence Ministry denied reports that Wahhabism had spread in the army.

It had been reported that a 30-year-old officer who deserted his military unit in the western Xanlar District earlier this month was a member of the extremist group. However, the report was denied by Defence Minister Safar Abiyev.

« If one person is a Wahhabi, it does not mean that everyone is a Wahhabi in the Azerbaijani army, » Abiyev told APA news agency in an exclusive interview.

However, the opposition daily Azadliq reported that over 100 Wahhabis or radical Islamists have been arrested in the Azerbaijani army recently.

In an operation carried out by the National Security Ministry on 20 October, more than 60 cadets and officers of military schools had been arrested, it said.

At the same time, the Azerbaijani news agency Turan quoted sources in the law-enforcement agencies as saying that 17 suspected Wahhabis had been arrested in the suburbs of Baku for putting up resistance to the police.

Day.az website also reported that four suspected Wahhabis had been arrested in a special operation on the evening of 29 October.

Azerbaijani Interior Minister Ramil Usubov said that any attempts to « cover up terrorist activities with religion » will be foiled and that the law-enforcement agencies would take all necessary measures.

Usubov also denied any threat of radical Islam in Azerbaijan. « There is no threat of religious extremism in Azerbaijan. When some individuals’ illegal deeds emerge, both law-enforcement agencies and the public respond to this appropriately, » he said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Xalaf Xalafov denied that there was any threat to foreign embassies, while State Committee for Work with Religious Structures head Orucov said that the Wahhabis arrested by the security forces were guided from abroad.

Recently, there have been a number of media reports about arrests of Wahhabis in Azerbaijan. On 27 October Turan news agency reported that one « Wahhabi » was killed while putting up armed resistance to security agents and two others were arrested in the village of Mastaga near Baku. Five Wahhabis were arrested in northwestern Zaqatala and Saki districts and four others in southern Lankaran District in September and October. (APA news agency, 1045 gmt 17 Oct 07; Trend news agency, 0816 gmt 21 Sept 07; Yeni Musavat, 16 Oct 07).

Human rights activists argue that a government clampdown could trigger the type of extremism seen in southern regions of Russia. (Trend news agency, Baku, in Russian 1001 gmt 15 Aug 07)

Cuma community

Baku has a small Cuma community led by Ilqar Ibrahimoglu, who is described in the Western media as a « charismatic » Islamic scholar and human rights activist.

Like Qamat Suleymanov of the Abu Bakr mosque, Ibrahimoglu is in his 30s. He studied religion in Qom, the centre of Shi’i Islam in Iran, and human rights in Poland.

Ibrahimoglu first attracted media attention after the emergence of the so-called headscarf problem in Azerbaijan in 2002. As the head of DEVAMM – the non-governmental Centre for the Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Religion – Ibrahimoglu led a campaign against university rectors who had imposed an unofficial ban on Islamic headscarves at universities.

He was arrested following the disputed presidential elections in 2003 and was given a five-year suspended sentence for involvement in mass clashes between the police and supporters of the opposition Musavat Party.

In June 2004, the police forced the Cuma community out of its mosque in central Baku. The authorities said that the community had been using the mosque illegally since 1992.

Ibrahimoglu has told BBC Monitoring that his community brings together nearly 3,000 members – mostly students, representatives of the educated middle class and businessmen. Almost half of them are women.

RFE/RL has quoted US-based Scholar Svante Cornell as saying that Ibrahimoglu’s « passionate speeches and anti-governmental rhetoric have attracted a large number of followers in a short period. It is the combination of Islamic roots and modern democratic rhetoric that make Ibrahimoglu different from other mullahs, and allow him to target young Azerbaijanis with secular minds ».

Ibrahimoglu has led the community since 1999.

Turkish mosques

There are currently three Turkish mosques in Baku – Sahidlar (Martyrs’) Mosque near the Alley of Martyrs; Ilahiyyat Mosque, which is next to the theology faculty of Baku State University; and Qaracuxur Mosque in the Baku suburbs.

All three mosques were built in the 1990s. Each has a Turkish imam appointed by the Turkish government agency for religious affairs.

The mosques are filled by both Turkish citizens – mostly students, businessmen and teachers – and Azerbaijanis during Friday prayers and religious festivals.

Jamaati-Nur community

Another sizable Islamic community which took roots in Azerbaijan following the collapse of the Soviet Union is the Jamaati-Nur, or Nur community.

The name comes from a collection of books called Risale-i Nur, written by Said Nursi, an Islamic thinker of Kurdish origin who lived in Turkey in 1878-1960. Risale-i Nur is a Qur’anic commentary exceeding 5,000 pages.

Nursi was known by his followers as Bediuzzaman, which means « the wonder of the time », and Ustad, or master.

The community is now led by Fethullah Gulen, a prominent Islamic scholar who lives in self-imposed exile in the USA.

Across Azerbaijan, Jamaati-Nur has a university, eleven high schools, one primary school and nine education facilities training university applicants, according to the website of Cag Oyretim Isletmeleri, the company which unofficially coordinates the operation of the community.

The first high school founded by Cag Oyretim Isletmeleri in Azerbaijan is Baku Private Turkish High School. The boys-only school was established in 1992.

Only 6th grade schoolboys who pass a test are accepted. Courses are taught in Azerbaijani, Turkish and English.

The school is known for its high university acceptance rate and many medals won in international competitions and olympiads.

Jamaati-Nur has a newspaper, Zaman, a radio channel, Burc FM, and several minor magazines published in Azerbaijan.

Until recently, the community also had a TV channel, Samanyolu, but its broadcasts were halted on 1 October 2007. The move was described as part of the government policy to restrict foreign broadcasts in Azerbaijan.


1. abdul rahim - 19 mai 2009

it is interesting post

2. nouralhouda - 28 novembre 2007

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3. Tom Hurst - 12 novembre 2007

Fascinating summary of current conditions in Baku. Certainly the major changes have occurred since the demise of the USSR. I certainly hope as Americans we can find a way to be scholorly about our foreign policy and show respect for other ways of thinking about religion.
I am greatful to have the chance to learn about this ancient society.

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