Is Sectarian Strife Brewing in Azerbaijan?

by Eldar Mamedov

At the beginning of July, two members of the Azerbaijani parliament, Qudrat Hassanguliyev and Fazil Gezenferoglu, launched a verbal attack against Iran. They accused Tehran of meddling in the internal affairs of a South Caucasus nation and supporting Armenia, which occupies Azerbaijani territory in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In the same vein, Yevda Abramov, the chair of the Israel caucus in the parliament, declared that Iran had no right to criticize Azerbaijan for its close ties with Israel, since it provided economic assistance to Armenia.

This is not the first time Azerbaijani MPs have engaged in Iran-bashing. When Tehran expressed its displeasure with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Baku in December 2016, Hassanquliyev threatened Iran with violent disintegration, promising the emergence of “five new states” in its place.

This time, the anti-Iranian vitriol was met with trenchant response from Ayatollah Seyed Hassan Ameli, the Friday prayer leader in the town of Ardabil in Iranian Azerbaijan and the Supreme Leader’s personal representative there. In a fiery sermon, Ameli castigated MPs for their insults of the “Iranian nation and its leaders.” More to the point, he recalled Iran’s role in securing Nakhichevan, the Azerbaijani exclave squeezed between Armenia and Iran. He also referenced Iranian efforts to mediate in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the early 1990s that the then-nationalist government in Baku rebuffed in order, as Ameli put it, “to please the US, Turkey, and Israel.”

In a tightly controlled political system like Azerbaijan’s, it is highly unlikely that some MPs would deliberately stoke controversy on one of the nation’s most complex foreign policy issues, like relations with Iran, without at least tacit approval from the very top.

Targeting Shiites at Home

Iran´s position on Nagorno-Karabakh, however, has little to do with this latest outburst. After all, despite heavy Azerbaijani lobbying, no state has to date taken concrete steps in helping Baku restore its territorial integrity. The real reason why Iran is being singled out is the fear the ruling establishment in Baku feels towards the empowerment of local Shiite actors. Although Shiites constitute roughly 70% of Azerbaijan´s population, the government fuels the narrative that Shiism is essentially an Iranian import.

With the rapid growth in the number of believers, the ruling elite has reasons to be worried. It has successfully emasculated the political opposition by mainstreaming the secular Turkic nationalism, an ideology that drove Azerbaijan’s pro-independence movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Occasionally, it even borrows from the liberal, pro-Western vocabulary. But it cannot credibly appropriate the Islamist discourse. Both pillars of the Iranian system—republicanism and Islamism—are the antithesis of the secular autocratic rule of the President Ilham Aliyev’s administration.

In dealing with the Shiite challenge, the government has adopted a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, it tries to isolate “radical clerics” such as Taleh Baghir-zadeh, a young, Iran-educated preacher who was jailed in 2015 after clashes in Nardaran, a village near Baku. On the other, it discreetly promotes popular clerics who focus on spiritual fulfillment rather than political and social activism. Such is the case, for example, of Hajji Shaheen Hasanli, the prayer leader of the historical Meshadi Dadash mosque in Baku. The Spiritual Board of Muslims of the South Caucasus, a Soviet-era left-over designed to control the religious life of Azerbaijani Muslims, recently promoted Hajji Shaheen to be its representative in the Nasimi district of Baku, one of the capital’s biggest.

In another step to curb the influence of the alleged radicals, the government banned foreign-educated imams from the country’s mosques.

These steps, however, largely failed to achieve their objectives. While Hajji Shaheen seems outwardly loyal to the system, his emphasis on the re-Islamization of society builds a constituency for more pronounced Islamist politics, which is sharply at odds with the regime’s assertive secularism. Besides, there are limits to how close he can associate with the establishment without losing the appeal of his pious base.

Mosques especially in the provinces, meanwhile, routinely ignore the ban on foreign-educated preachers. Worried about the popularity of these “unofficial” imams, the government occasionally reacts by arresting them, as it did in April 2017 with Hajji Sardar Hajjihasanli, a respected, Iran-educated cleric in the town of Jalilabad, in the south of the country. Largely, however, the authorities turn a blind eye to such practices, wary of igniting an open confrontation with the Shiite believers.

The activities of the Iranian Cultural Center in Baku present the government with another uncomfortable dilemma. As part of Iran’s embassy, the center enjoys diplomatic immunity, but it spreads the religious-ideological message of the Islamic Republic. Anti-Americanism and general skepticism of the Western idea of democracy are prominent themes. The khutbas (sermons) of the center’s charismatic Azerbaijani-speaking preacher, Seyed Ali Akbar Ojaghnejad, are increasingly popular among the Shiite youth of Baku. The government in Baku, however, is reluctant to confront Tehran over these activities, since it also occasionally uses Ojaghnejad, a son-in-law of the hardline Iranian Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, to pass messages to Tehran when relations between the two countries go sour.

The government’s case is also undermined by a lack of capable cadres. Grey, Soviet-era ideological apparatchiks are no match for charismatic preachers who speak a plain, emotionally appealing language. Occasionally, there are exceptions like Elshad Isqandarov, a previous head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, himself a practicing Shiite. But his ability to build trust-based relations with the religious communities eventually forced him out of his job, with the pro-government media accusing him, absurdly, of being both a Khomeinist and a follower of the Turkish Fethullah Gulen cult, despite the mutual incompatibility of these two currents.

Divide and Rule?

With such an unconvincing track record, there is a risk that the government will revert to a tried-and-true policy of divide and rule by backing a perceived weaker side in the country´s sectarian divide. It pursued such a policy in 1990s, when Sunnis, even of Salafist persuasion, were favored over the Shiites. Since then, the balance of power has tilted strongly in favor of the Shiites.

As part of an effort to balance them, there is a talk of re-opening the Abu Bakr mosque in Baku, which, up to its closure few years ago, was the focal point of Salafist missionary activity in the country. Despite that, the government tolerated its imam, the Saudi-educated Gamet Suleymanov, since he repeatedly made a point of recognizing President Ilham Aliyev’s authority.

Some Baku-based observers worry that the government might even be tempted to re-direct Azerbaijani Salafists, returning home from Syria and Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic State, against the country’s Shiites. Although pitting the Sunni and Shiite radicals against each other might deflect some pressure from the ruling elite, the long-term consequences for the country would be disastrous. As Altay Goyushov, Azerbaijan’s leading expert on Islam, warns, at present the number of political Islamists in Azerbaijan, of both Sunni and Shiite persuasion, barely exceeds 20% of the total population. The confrontation, however, would push more people to define themselves primarily according to their narrow sectarian identities and lead to a full-fledged sectarian strife, with unpredictable and destabilizing consequences.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Photo: Ilham Aliyev attends the opening ceremony of the Juma Mosque in Shamakhi.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.