Authorities Strive To Keep Islam Under Control

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Strategically located between Iran, Turkey, and
Russia's Muslim Northern Caucasus republics,
Azerbaijan has seen an upsurge in Islamic activity in
the past decade. Depending on their geopolitical
interests, authorities have adopted various attitudes
toward foreign religious activists. Using a mix of
coercion and tolerance, they have succeeded in keeping
Islamic activities under control.

Prague, 24 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Even before the
collapse of the Soviet Union, religious groups from
Turkey and Iran began flourishing in Azerbaijan.

In addition to its geographic proximity, Azerbaijan's
historical and cultural ties to both Turkey and Iran
provided fertile ground for both Sunni religious
endowments and Shi'a mullahs to develop missionary

Turkish and Iranian religious groups were later joined
by Saudi Salafi missionaries already established in
the Northern Caucasus. Their relatively simple
interpretation of the Koran initially appealed to many
Azerbaijanis amid the overall post-Soviet spiritual

Today, Azerbaijan is the only former Soviet republic
where the Turkish, Iranian, and Saudi brands of Islam
are equally present, even though they do not enjoy the
same level of influence.

Bayram Balci of the Istanbul-based French Institute of
Anatolian Studies researches Turkish Islamic groups in
Central Asia and the Caucasus. He told RFE/RL that
being a predominantly Shi'a country, Turkic Azerbaijan
is a special case in the former Soviet Union.
"Azerbaijan offers believers greater opportunities to
practice their religion and, at the same time, offers
all these movements [comparatively] greater
opportunities to proselytize."

"What is extremely difficult for the Azerbaijanis is
that, religiously, they are very close to the Iranians
in that they profess the same duodeciman (Twelver
Imam) Shi'ism," Balci said. "But culturally and
historically they are much closer to Turkey. In any
case, given the international context, they would like
to get much closer to Turkey than to Iran, first
because Turkey represents a sort of window on Europe,
second because Turkey much better corresponds to the
kind of state they see for themselves; i.e., a kind of
secular state."

Balci argued that this explains in part why
Azerbaijani authorities have been generally more
lenient toward Turkish missionaries than toward
Iranian mullahs.

Equally crucial, experts say, is the generally secular
orientation of most Turkish groups.

Among Turkish religious activists operating in the
country are followers of Osman Nuri Topbas, a group
related to the Naqshbandiyah Sufi brotherhood that
runs the Aziz Mahmud Hudayi endowment and carries out
a lot charity work.

Also active is the movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a
religious thinker who seeks to reconcile Muslim and

The fethullahci, as Gulen's followers are known, have
spread across Azerbaijan and Central Asia, setting up
a network of high schools and universities that
attract children of the local elites.

A secular orientation and a proven ability to
cultivate ties with Turkish political and business
elites as well as with local governments have spared
Gulen's followers many troubles in the former Soviet
Union, except in Uzbekistan, where they were expelled
at the end of the 1990s.

A distinctive feature of the fethullahci in
Azerbaijan, Balci said, is that they have succeeded in
forming local cadres who are present "in nearly all
economic and social sectors" -- an achievement the
French scholar ascribes partly to the comparatively
greater openness of local authorities to religion.

"Azerbaijan offers believers greater opportunities to
practice their religion and, at the same time, offers
all these movements [comparatively] greater
opportunities to proselytize," Balci said. "That makes
it a lot easier for outsider groups to form local
cadres and [become indigenous]."

Yet, the tolerance of the secular Azerbaijani
government has its limits and not all representatives
of Turkish Islam are equally welcome.

Authorities, in particular, have persistently denied
registration to the Suleymanci, a radical group named
after its founder Suleyman Hilmi Tunahan.

Raoul Motika teaches Islamic studies at Bochum
University in Germany. He said the reception offered
by Azerbaijani authorities to Turkish Islamic groups
largely depends on their relations with Ankara's
political establishment.

"The [further] these movements are away from Turkish
state structures, the more problems they have in
Azerbaijan. You have to differentiate between state
structures, meaning the Turkish Directorate for
Religious Affairs, which is officially very active in
Azerbaijan," Motika said. "They have a theological
faculty at Baku State University; they also have [high
schools] and mosques. They are very, very active and
[their activity] is all based on official agreements
between the two countries. This is the first level.
Then you have a second level, which is represented by
semi-legal foundations from Turkey [like the Gulen or
the Topbas movements], which are [also] active. Then
you have these more or less illegal, or non-legalized,
organizations like the Suleymanci. The first two
layers -- the official and semiofficial -- are very
active and are becoming very influential in
Azerbaijan. All others are minor groups that are not

Azerbaijani authorities have developed various
responses to stem the influence of foreign Islam.

In June 2001, then-President Heidar Aliyev ordered the
creation of a state committee charged with
reregistering all religious organizations throughout
the country.

Although the government denied targeting any
particular group, the move was largely perceived as
designed to better control Iranian mullahs, Salafi
Arab preachers, and Christian missionaries operating
in the country.

The government also used the global war on terror that
followed the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United
States as a pretext to crack down on radical Arab
Salafi -- commonly known as Wahabbi -- groups.

Yet, the Salafi creed of Islam remains present in the
country, notably among the Sunni Muslim Lezghi
minority that lives in northern areas close to
Russia's autonomous republic of Daghestan.

Salafi groups also operate the Abu Baqr mosque in Baku
and -- reportedly -- the so-called Lezghi mosque in
the capital's Inner City.

Motika said doctrinal reasons also explain why Salafi
proselytizers have not succeeded in spreading deeper
roots in Azerbaijan.

"Although they are active [among] the Sunni part of
the population, they face tough competition from the
Turks. A large number of [Azerbaijan's] Sunni
population -- how large, it is difficult to say -- has
a Hanafi background, which means that they are closer
to the Turkish brand of Sunni Islam than to the Arab
[brand], which represents the Hanbali branch of the
Islamic law that dominates in the Arab Peninsula,"
Motika said. "Wahabbi, or Salafi Islam, is an
offspring of the Hanbali school of Islamic law. This
means that the [influence of these Arab groups] is
somehow limited, [although] the Lezghi community, or
refugees from Chechnya, are sometimes quite open to
such influences."

Hanafi and Hanbali are two of the four jurisprudential
schools, or maddhab, that exist in Sunni Islam. Named
after 9th-century Imam Abu Hanifa, the Hanafi school
is considered to be the most open to modern ideas. By
contrast, the Hanbali school is seen as the most

In addition to harassing radical Sunni groups or
expelling influential Shi'a Iranian mullahs at times
of tension with Tehran, authorities have been
developing alternative responses to maintain control
over Islam.

In the early 1990s, a state-sponsored theology
university was set up with a view to replacing
religious cadres formed in Uzbekistan in Soviet times.

Citing Turkey as an example, some officials would now
like to see tightly monitored religious classes
authorized in high schools. Pilot religion classes
have been introduced in some teaching establishments.
Yet, Motika said, the top political leadership remains
strongly divided on the issue.

"Two factions within the ruling circles are fighting
each other. One is represented by the Religious
Affairs State Committee of [Rafiq] Aliyev, which wants
to introduce religious classes in [regular] school
curricula," Motika said. "But Education Minister
[Misir Mardanov] is against [this] and, until now,
Aliyev has not been very successful in that field."

A delicate combination of coercion and benevolence has
helped Azerbaijani authorities avoid the emergence of
political Islam.

In the late 1990s the government arrested leaders of
the influential Iranian-oriented Islamic Party of
Azerbaijan on charges of spying for Tehran. This group
was succeeded by the Muslim Democratic Party, which
enjoys much less popular support than its predecessor
-- in part because of its alleged links with the
government -- and is not seen as posing any serious
threat to the secular regime.

Motika said he believes the initial religious wave
that followed the demise of the Soviet Union has died
away and that he does not see any group now "that
could provide the nucleus of a revived political
Islam." Yet, he warned this does not preclude any
unpleasant development for local authorities in the

"The Azerbaijani state has been more or less
successful in the short, or middle-term," Motika said.
"But [in] the longer run, you never know."


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