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From post-independence religious effervescence to a form of loyalist “neo-monarchical” secularization: what future for Islamic pluralism in Azerbaijan?

This article was published in the special dossier of Observatoire Pharos  devoted to religious pluralism in the post-Soviet space on the occasion of the 30 years of the fall of the USSR: https://www.observatoirepharos.com/pays/azerbaijan/dossier-trentre-ans-apres-le-pluralisme-dans-lespace-postsovietique/

The breakup of the USSR in 1991 caused a profound reshuffle of identity in all the former Soviet socialist republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia, which Azerbaijan has not escaped, with a long multicultural history, located at the crossroads of the European and Asian worlds, and forming a buffer zone between the Turkish-Iranian world in the south and Russian in the north, . This largely secularized country since the 19th century, during which the Azerbaijani nation was constituted, thus extricated itself  from the Soviet bloc and its repression against all forms of religious expression, at the time of the failure of Perestroika, in a context of territorial conflict with Armenia which reactivated in 1988, and unprecedented economic development thanks to its oil resources and the signing in 1994 of the “Contract of the Century” with a consortium of Western companies.

The disappearance of an entire section of modernity marked by scientific atheism and dialectical materialism ushered in a period of research for new identifying models and reconnection with ancestral cultural roots. This rich period of restructuring of the religious landscape of Azerbaijan is thus characterized by the opposition of actors disputing the meaning of the Koranic practices and message and their interactions with a population of 97% Muslim presenting the singularity of both to be made up of two thirds of Shiites and one third of Sunnis and to wish to reappropriate the modern ideals disappointed by the fall of the USSR. This border area was, parallel to the arrival of new foreign Islamic currents from Iran, Turkey and the Arab world, shaken up by crucial international issues such as the events of September 11, 2001 and the wars “against the axis of evil ”in Iraq and Afghanistan carried by the ideology of the “clash of civilizations”, to the “crisis of caricatures” of the end of the 2000s, then of the “Arab Spring” at the beginning of the 2010s, and finally the conflict in Syria. This global context obviously interacted with a situation of reconstruction of the Azerbaijani political system around clan functioning and a dynastic succession of power within the Aliev family from 2003.

Following a long period of survival of the Azerbaijani “popular Islam” in the private family sphere and organizing itself around the holy places that dot the country, and as we celebrate the 30 years of political, economic and socio-cultural independence of the country, it is necessary to draw up a short assessment of the evolution of relations between politics and religion in this South Caucasus country by focusing on its main religion, Islam, in the diversity of its currents, and to provide elements of understanding of the determinants and characteristics of the secularization policy of the post-Soviet authorities in Azerbaijan.

The “parallel” Islam of the Soviet period and its consequences in terms of religious practice

Following the formation of the secular Azerbaijani nation in the 19th century, the systematic repression of forms of religious expression that hit Azerbaijan from the late 1920s and during the 1930s, under a more radical vision of religion perceived as “opium of the people”1 and also because of the change of attitude of the allies of the USSR, foremost among which the Turkey of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), leads to the registration of religious societies to the People’s Committee or Narkomat. The Union of the Godless was created in 1925 by Iemelian Yaroslasvski (1878-1943) of the CPSU Politburo’s anti-religious commission. Muharrem ceremonies are prohibited, customary laws (or adats) are forbidden, and the Latin alphabet is introduced in 1929 in order to fight against the influence of the clergy on the population as well as to cut it off from its history, from the Iran and Arab countries. The Cyrillic alphabet was introduced later in 1940 to combat Turkish influence. The decrees multiplied in 1928-1929: religious organizations should no longer deal with anything but prayers, religious literature was prohibited as well as any form of propaganda, mosques were transformed into clubs and museums (from 3000 in 1917, they were no more than 17 in 1933). Beyond that, after the repressions of the beginning of the 1920s against “class enemies” and of the beginning of the 1930s against the leaders of Turkish-speaking origin throughout Russia, it is the beginning of the “Purges” against tarikats and the intellectuals from 1937 under the aegis of Mir Djafar Baghirov2 who will kill 120,000 people, including 30,000 figures from the intellectual, literary, scientific and academic world3.

The German bet on the Muslim population during the 2nd World War which involves the military training of prisoners of war and anti-communist militants, in order to have access to Caspian oil and to build a bridge to Iran and Iraq, causes a change in the policy of the USSR: in 1942, the extraordinary Congress of the members of the Muslim clergy of the USSR in Ufa leads to the creation of the Directorate of Religious Affairs which is subdivided into four entities including one for Transcaucasia in 1944, with a seat in Baku bringing together a  sheikh ul-islam and a mufti and which nevertheless became a powerful instrument of clergy control.

In the 1950s, Stalin’s liberalization policy was due to the disappearance of the older generation of the clergy formed before the creation of the USSR: the new generation of the clergy became a body of civil servants who were members of the CP working in close collaboration with the atheist authorities. Khrushchev will launch a new campaign of russification, accompanied by closings of mosques, repressions against believers, and anti-religious propaganda which will be continued under Brezhnev in the 1960s and 1970s. This policy intensified in the late 1970s and in the 1980s after the war against Afghanistan and the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

This Soviet period was marked by the development of an underground Islam in reaction to a policy of repression against Muslims carried out with typically Christian representations of religion4: on the one hand, mosque closures do not have the same effect as closures of churches due to the different role of these religious buildings which can be easily replaced, and on the other hand the establishment of a religious leadership for Islam which has no religious hierarchy, in the sense defined by  Christians, and whose communities act independently, could have only a limited effect. If there has been a de-Islamization of Russian speakers and intellectuals in Baku mainly, this has not been the case in the rural districts and especially in the predominantly Shiite regions more inclined to resist Soviet propaganda because of their practice of taqiya. Thus, the practices of Muharrem ceremonies have continued including with the participation of young people, as well as that of Gurban Bayram or the prophet’s birthday, the number of women mullahs has increased, religious marriages have continued with unregistered mullahs, as well as marriages before the legal age and funeral vigils. Circumcision practices continued including among CP members and atheists, as did the food ban on pork consumption. And the ban on pilgrimages abroad has led to an increase in pilgrimages to substitute holy places in Azerbaijan which have become central in the development of a “parallel Islam” to the official Islam represented by the Directorate of  Spiritual Affairs, as Alexandre Bennigsen has described it well5. But this “parallel Islam” presented somewhat different characteristics in Azerbaijan because of the domination of Shiism and the very marginal role of the Sufi tarikats. Rather, it was a privatization of religion, the survival of which was ensured by more or less informal holy places, the pirs, 500 across the country and by mollakhanas numbering 1,000.

Gorbachev’s Perestroika intervenes in the context of the resurgent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh from the first Armenian protest demonstrations in 1988 followed by the self-proclamation of independence in December 1991 by the Armenian authorities of the region which lead to a war opened at the beginning of the year 1992, a few months after the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan voted for the independence of the country on August 30, 1991 and refused to integrate the military organization of the CIS unlike Armenia. The 1994 ceasefire allows the Armenian forces to occupy until 2021 between 16 and 20% of Azerbaijani territory including the districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, and causes the flight of 620,000 Azeri internally displaced persons in Azerbaijan. Thanks to the political unrest of this period, Heydar Aliev, who made his career in the KGB, former first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, former member of the Politburo of the CPSU6, and master of Nakhichevan, was elected President of the Republic on 3 September 1993,  succeeding Aboulfaz Eltchibey of the Popular Front elected in June 1992. Azerbaijani independence, far from constituting a pivotal date in terms of Islamic revival, will act as an accelerator of dynamics which have hitherto been restricted but were well and truly at work clandestinely before the fall of the Soviet bloc, the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the war in Afghanistan having already sown the seeds of religious renewal in 1979. A restructuring of the religious landscape will take place under the influence of movements from the foreigners that will reappropriate the partially de-Islamized and strongly secularized population of contemporary Azerbaijan which also based, at that time, great hopes on a rapprochement with the western world.

Post-Soviet religious vitality and the restructuring of the religious landscape

The opening of borders, the resumption of communications and the new ease of movement with neighboring Muslim countries create a great deal of air and a wind of religious freedom at the country’s independence which will allow the development of a large number of  foreign Islamic currents, politicized or not, which will rush into this breach, whether they are Shiites or Sunnis. These will considerably influence a population in a situation of religious self-determination7, in search of cultural benchmarks, and strongly attached to its secular daily life gradually forged since the beginning of the 19th century. The opposition of actors disputing the meaning of the Koranic practices and message will allow a reconstruction of a specific Islam in germ that also wants to reappropriate the modern ideals disappointed by the fall of communism.

The Azerbaijani population of 9.9 million is made up of 97% Muslims, of whom 67% are Shiites and 31% are Sunnis. There are 1,500 religious communities according to the State Committee at Work with Religious Organizations (SCWRO)8 of which only 909 are registered and among them 807 Islamic. The country has 2,250 mosques, 132 of which are in the capital, Baku. According to the Institute for Peace and Democracy (IPD), only 800 mosques are believed to be frequented by believers and an additional 50 during major religious events, while 1,450 are currently closed without an official permit. Historically, most of the Muslim theological and legal schools or mazhab are present in Azerbaijan. The vast majority of Shiites belong to the mainstream connected with the cult of Imams (or Imamiyya) and are called Imamites who attend the Djafarite school. The majority of Sunnis adhere to the Hanafi legal school while a minority adhere to the Shafiite school, these two schools being the more liberal. The majority of Shiites reside in the southern regions near Iran and Turkey as well as in the center of the country and on the Acheron peninsula where Baku is located. The majority of Sunnis reside in the northern regions near Russia although a large number live in the capital and central regions. Other religious minorities are also present in the country; Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, Doukhoboros and Molokhanes, Udines, Baha’is, Jews, Hindus and Atheists.

The Shiite currents that revived in the early 1990s can be distinguished between the politicized pro-Iranian currents, which would quickly attract the suspicion of the secular authorities of independent Azerbaijan, and the independent Shiite currents. Azerbaijani independence has resulted in the appearance on the political scene of a number of politico-religious organizations close to neighboring Iran and driven both by a desire to reconnect with the Persian non-national cultural origins of people of Azerbaijan, and by a fight against structural socio-economic inequalities caused by the clan politician game of the country. We must mention The Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, founded on September 2, 1991 by Hadji Alikram Aliev, ideologically based on the Koran and the words of the Prophet Muhammad which he puts forward as part of the construction of an independent Azerbaijan, built on a very strong popular base around Närdaran in the Apcheron peninsula near Baku, which has one of the most respected pirs among Azerbaijani Shiites. This movement appears in the context of Ayatollah Khomeini’s promotion of theocracy, marked by the ideology of “faqih power” and “Islamic government”.

The independent structures of Shiism in Azerbaijan can be found in a unanimous criticism of the Caucasian Muslim Office (CMO)9 and do not have direct political ties to the Iranian regime. However, it is important to distinguish the actors involved in human rights and religious freedom from those participating in the “Shiite renaissance” by seeking to rehabilitate the legitimate spiritual hierarchy throughout the Shiite world. Hadji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, imam of the Djouma Mosque in Baku’s Old City enjoyed nationwide popularity with more than 3,000 believers attending its Friday sermons at the mosque. The community of this mosque promotes a reform of Islam and will engage in anti-alcohol and anti-drug campaigns, promote blood transfusions during the Ashoura period in place of the shahsey-vahsey, to support orphans and it even created a dispute resolution center or “House of Wisdom” and launched a “Dialogue of Civilizations” program. In 2000, he created the Center for the Defense of the Freedom of Conscience and Religion (DEVAMM)10, a human rights association and the first religious advocacy organization in Azerbaijan. The community is advocating for women’s right to wear the veil in school and in ID photos. His activities in defense of human rights and his investment in the internet lead him to become the most recognized religious figure in the country where he is considered a moderate using European values ​​to achieve his ends. We can also mention the community of the Meshadi Dadash mosque or the Movement of Muslim Unity (MUM) which represents one of the last upheavals in Azerbaijani Islamic revival. This Shiite renaissance cannot be approached without emphasizing the role of the representatives of the marja-i-taqlid in Azerbaijan. In the 1990s, among the thousands of young people who went to study in Shiite religious centers in Iran and in other Muslim countries, some remained to receive in-depth knowledge in the Shiite theological universities or khouzeyye ilmiyya where the disciples of the marja i’taklid, called the mujtahids, are trained. Also, if the two previous imams pose no threat to the sheikh ul-Islam Allashükür Pashazade of the CMO, due to the fact that they do not have any high religious status according to Shiite dogma, this is not the case for a small number of Hujjat ul-Islam wa-l-muslimin who participate in the Shiite renaissance in the country and particularly in its supreme spiritual hierarchy. These different personalities have the particularity of having, in the eyes of the Shiite world, a more important title than the Sheikh ul-Islam heading the BMC, and to increasingly challenge his authority.

The Sunni religious currents that developed after Azerbaijan’s independence can be distinguished between pro-Turkish currents with a strong Sufi dimension and Salafi currents imported from Arab Gulf countries. The success of Turkish Islamic influences can be explained by converging regional energy policy interests around the Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan axis, the Karabakh conflict against the Armenians and the building of a common enemy, as well as for linguistic and ethnic reasons. and by the openness to the West offered by Turkey. It is also explained by the refusal of the strongly secularized Azerbaijani society of a rapprochement with Iran, which also supports the Armenians for fear of Azerbaijani irredentism in the Azerbaijani regions of northern Iran, and because of a persistent geopolitical conflict concerning the status of the Caspian Sea determining the oil financial manna of the two countries. The cooperation of the Azerbaijani state with the Directorate of Religious Affairs of Turkey or Diyanet has led to the construction of twenty-four mosques and also includes the training of the clergy and the funding of tuition in Islamic high schools and universities in Turkey. In 1992, the Turkish Islamic Faculty, later renamed Faculty of Theology, was established at Baku State University. The Sufi brotherhoods or tarikats participate in the dissemination of the Turkish Islamic model through unofficial channels. The first to appear in post-Soviet Azerbaijan are the preachers of the Naqshbandiyya from Dagestan where it is widespread and from Turkey. This brotherhood is very popular among ethnic minorities in the north of the country who have strong links with their families in Dagestan and Chechnya and who perceive the action of the authorities in religious matters as ethnic persecution. In the first half of the 1990s, the Qadiriyya and Mawlawiyya also appeared, then Suleymaniyya, which appeared in 2000. Inspired by the movement of Saït Nursi and long perceived as the symbol of Turkish Islam in Azerbaijan, the fethullajis, this  neo nurdju movement designating the disciples of the movement created by Fethullah Gülen, established in the country from 1992 and the coming to power of Abulfaz Eltchibey who allows them to set up a certain number of companies and commercial entities whose profits are donated to propaganda activities. These last ones were made permanent when Aliev came to power in 1993, and he authorized the first boarding schools and schools to be opened in the country. Their presence is symbolized by a large network of bookstores and stationery shops, or educational institutions such as the Caucasus University or various Turkish private high schools both in the capital and in the provincial towns. The Gulenist movement promotes Turkish nationalism, market economy and democratic ideas all at the same time trying to combine modernity and Islam by refusing to grant religion the status of model state as in Iran and the Arab countries. The dissemination of Gülenist ideas passes through the exemplary nature of the teaching staff (or temsil). Religious instruction takes place only outside of school through private gatherings where the Risale i-Nur is read.

The Salafist or Wahhabite current appears in Azerbaijan at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, upon the Iranian Revolution and the war in Afghanistan which marked the “Islamic renaissance”11 and spread, among other things, the ideology of Al-Wahhab in the North Caucasus, in Chechnya and in Dagestan first, where it enjoyed great popularity before making herself known in Azerbaijan, mainly among Sunni ethnic groups in the north of the country, among the Lezghis, Avars and Tshakurs. and to spread around the Abu Bakr mosque which quickly became the Salafist center of Azerbaijan and brought together more than 3000 believers for the namaz, including those performing the ritual in the adjacent streets and up to 8000 believers on Fridays and 12000 during the religious holidays, which represents a “historic record for the country”.12 This movement first obtained a great success with the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Baku, elites downgraded and stigmatized following the fall of the Soviet bloc, attracted by an elitist movement wishing to go beyond the opposition between Sunnis and Shiites and shifting popular interest in Turkism towards Islamism13. This population as well as the ethnic minorities in the north of the country form the heart of this movement totally uprooted from the Muslim tradition of the country and which can be qualified as a “religion without culture”14and which, in this regard, has a typically post-modern character. With the outbreak of the Second Chechen War in 1999 and the increase in Azerbaijani Salafist fighters, the movement split into two tendencies: a purely religious and quietist one and a politico-military one which divides the country into different zone of influence15. At the beginning of the 2000s, the context of repression against the wearing of beards and short pants, the increasing use of the Internet network as well as the context of confrontation with the West following the events of September 1116 led to the appearance of more radical believers investing in military operations in the North Caucasus as in the Middle East, with the growth of discussions around jihad and relations with the authorities which will lead to an increased confrontation of the two tendencies of this Salafist movement: the line of Gamet Suleymanov17 bringing together the vast majority of believers (40 to 50,000 people), refusing armed jihad and calling for obedience to the sovereign, accused for this reason of “madkhalism” by his very minority opponents (6 to 7,000 people) , divided into jamaat subordinate to their emirs, deeming armed jihad compulsory and wishing for the establishment of an Islamic state governed by sharia, and ceasing to attend the Abu Ba mosque, taxed, them, in return for “takfirism” or “kharidjism”. Their opposition led to an attack on the Abu Bakr mosque in July 200818 and the subsequent closure of the latter, which is still closed to this day.

From the Perestroika of Gorbachev to the succession of Heidar Aliev, Azerbaijan thus experienced a period of great religious renewal characterized by a great diversity of foreign Islamic currents offered to a population in a situation of confessional self-determination and partially de-Islamized, which had little religious knowledge and who had developed an Islam qualified according to researchers and interlocutors as “parallel”, “popular”, “privatized” or “religion of the pirs”.19 Strongly attached to the secularization of the state since the 19th century when the nation of Azerbaijan was built, this new freedom has made it possible to “restore the balance” after 70 years in the Soviet bloc. This rich period of religious blossoming and rediscovery of cultural heritage, marked by a struggle of the nascent state against marginal Islamist tendencies under the regime of Aliyev Sr., a struggle which nevertheless began to present the characteristics of an instrumentalization to the purpose of establishing a clan and family transmission of power before his death in 2003, made it however possible to observe with optimism a reforming and modernizing vitality of national Islam. Alongside a Salafist tendency largely dominated by a quietist practice loyal to the State and corresponding to a strong desire to reconnect with the Arab roots of Islam, independent currents of Shiism opposed to the Iranian regime were investing in the defense. of religious freedom and interreligious dialogue in connection with Western embassies and NGOs, and the “civilization” of ancient practices of Ashoura while the Turkish Nurdju current relied on the exemplary mode of its faculty and on a powerful international business network to propose an Islam compatible with the patterns of capitalism thought sweeping the world after the fall of the Soviet bloc. The population freely cultivated a popular Islam around the pilgrimages to the many pirs of the country, many of which were of pre-Islamic origin, a practice which nevertheless seemed destined to gradually withdraw from the religious field under the influence of previous movements. A class of marja i-taqlid not only trained in Iran was emerging in the country and could potentially lead to a hierarchy of the Shiite clergy more legitimate than that of the BMC, an old institution inherited from the reign of Catherine II and totally discredited by believers and criticized for its corrupt practices. A form of “Muslim Protestantism” like the one called for by Mirza Fathali Akhundov20, was even emerging, without threatening the power in place at all, carried by Muslim intellectuals like Nariman Qasimoglu .

The family transfer of power in 2003 supported by the Westerners, and the subsequent disappearance of Westernized secular political forces in 2006, in the post-September 11 context of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, when negotiations with Armenia got bogged down concerning occupied Karabakh, and the population still did not see the fallout from the enrichment of the country from the oil rent, was a turning point in Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet period with regard to the religious situation.

Azerbaijani secularization under the “neo-monarchical” regime of the Aliev family

On August 20, 1992, Parliament adopted the 29 articles of the “Law on Religious Freedom”, under Aboulfaz Eltchibey, the first sitting president to take an oath on the Koran, who established the separation of religion and state and equality of citizens regardless of their religious affiliation while guaranteeing the establishment of religious communities. It is also the first time in two hundred years that the clergy have not received salaries or state funding. After the seizure of power by Heydar Aliev in the summer of 1993, who tried to display his affiliation with Islam, by attracting Turkish Nurdju businessmen and Arab aid funds for refugees from Karabakh, in making the small pilgrimage (or umra) the following year with his son or taking an oath on the Koran like Eltchibey before him, his policy will be progressively marked by stricter control of communities and interference in religious affairs depending on the context both inside and outside the country, from the signing of major oil contracts and the entry into the scene of the United States and European institutions.

The state institutional structuring of  Islam and the evolution of the “Law on Religious Freedom”

The Caucasus Muslims Office (CMO) will thus be placed under close supervision, in part because of the membership of its leader, the sheikh ul-Islam Allahshükür Pashazade, to the Lankoran clan in the south of the country populated mainly by the The Talysh ethnic group, while Aliev functions mainly with the Nakhitchevan clan and that of the Armenistanis from the historic khanate of Karabakh21. In 1998, Pashazade was elected life president of the CMO at its 10th congress22 while demonstrating his loyalty to the head of state. The same year and until the end of 1997, five amendments to the “Law on Religious Freedom” will thus result in the prohibition for foreign citizens to carry out religious activities, the obligation for the Muslim communities to refer to the CMO, now under the authority of the cabinet of ministers, for the certification of members of the clergy. From this period dates the very high importance of the registration of religious communities in Azerbaijan who must now submit their charter and will no longer have any means of legally contesting either the refusal of registration or their revocation. Between 1996 and 1998, from 216 religious organizations, including 178 Muslim, the figure decreased to 120 officially registered religious organizations, almost all of them Muslim. These measures will be accentuated by the establishment, by presidential decree n ° 512 of June 21, 200123, of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations (SCWRO), which is solely responsible for monitoring, registering and banning on religious organizations, which will inaugurate a period of confrontation with the CMO, particularly with regard to donations from the faithful, the management of pilgrims quotas for the hajj, the management of funds from Arab countries, or again the recall of students in foreign Islamic institutions in 2002.24 The establishment of SCWRO corresponds to the failure of the State to take full control of the situation due to the persistence of functioning of religious organizations outside of any registration, the continued arrival of missionaries through legal aid organizations, and the evasion of registration through corruption25. Likewise, the audit of the activities of religious educational institutions and the will of the authorities to certify the mullahs will come up against the numerical insufficiency of clerics trained by the Islamic University of Baku created in 1989, which will cause many departures abroad and the development of unofficial madrassas. This policy is linked to a need to contain the flow of foreign currents wishing to impose their Koranic reading.

The succession of Heydar Aliev by his son Ilham Aliev in October 2003 will inaugurate the beginning of a period of suppression of all forms of dissent on the part of secular pro-Western political parties in Azerbaijan, a time united in the Azadliq (“Liberty”) movement  and which will be almost reduced to nothing from 2006. This void will be gradually filled by other mainly religious political forces joined by ordinary opponents disappointed by Western values, due to the support of the oil client countries for the Aliev regime which refuses to solve the problem of the exclusion of the majority of the population from the income of the oil rent, as of the failure of the negotiations on the conflict of Karabakh and the subsequent perception of a West friendly to Armenia Christian26. We began to witness a real campaign of the cult of Heidar Aliev, mosques being baptized in his name and memorial rooms in his honor being installed in the mosques, which constitutes a veritable blasphemy for most believers. In 2006, following new amendments, the CMO, which has become a public organization itself registered with SCWRO, which contributes to further discrediting it in the eyes of believers, will nevertheless be given the status of supreme Muslim religious body and the role of first validating requests for registration by SCWRO that they can refuse for “disturbing public order”, requests which are even more complex. From 2011, the freedom of religious organizations is thus hampered by new amendments. In addition, the clergy becomes a body of state officials who must pay taxes. On January 16, 2018, SCWRO with the Ministry of the Interior, the Attorney General and the State security services adopted the “Action Plan against Religious Extremism”, and on May 1, 2018, SCWRO announced that the Islamic clergy, that is 1,600 religious leaders, will now receive salaries as state employees. To respond to the shortage of clerics, the presidential decree of February 9, 2018 created the Institute of Theology under the authority of SCWRO to which is integrated the former faculty of theology of the University of Baku. Religious literature is subject to strict control from 2009. Within SCWRO, a special department for religious expertise has been created. A “Moral Values ​​Fund” subordinated to SCWRO is set up in order to manage funds received from believers or the salaries of the clergy, for example. Many mosques are closed from the year 2009, so much so that the term “phobia of mosques” comes up in daily discourse and that a center for the protection of mosques in Baku is created in response by civil society in September 2009: between 2008 and 2012 three mosques were destroyed and eleven were closed. In spring 2018, video surveillance of mosques was put in place in 53 of them. Regarding the ban on wearing the hijab in ID photos and in schools, popular protests since 1998 have led to the creation of a “committee to protect the hijab and” hijab prisoners “. A controversy has also stirred the Azerbaijani society over the successive bans between 2007 and 2009  on the use of amplifiers for azan in mosques, a practice yet persistent. Thus, all of the interlocutors questioned report a situation where SCWRO now fully prevails over CMO and where all competition between the two entities has definitively disappeared. The CMO appears as a puppet institution giving Islamic credit to a policy of total control without any possible independence in the religious sphere. Likewise, the active and reinforced state intervention in this area deals significant blows to the strict separation of the state and religion guaranteed by the Constitution.

Repressions against religious communities

The struggle against the Sunni Salafist movement began in the late 1990s amid increasing attention by the security services to radical Islamic groups linked to Arab countries. Following the expulsion of many Arab citizens and the ban on many humanitarian organizations and Arab funds, the fight accelerated with the second Chechen war in 1999 through a crackdown on Chechen refugees27 without however succeeding in reducing the number of followers. The repression of the authorities took the form of a fight against the appearance of the Salafists28 and a media campaign against the quietist leader of the Abu Bakr mosque, Gamet Suleymanov, while rejecting the official registration of the community by the CMO. This has the effect of revalorizing the image of its leader as well as a renewed interest in Salafism, as the emergence of disciples at this time in the southern regions and of the traditionally Shiite Apcheron peninsula29 proves it . Due to the confrontation between the moderate line and radical tendencies, and following the attack perpetrated against the Abu Bakr mosque, it will be closed, and the Salafist networks including the moderate line, quietist and loyal to the State will now evolve underground, in order to win the favor of the West. Hard-line activists are found in the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, even creating exclusively Azerbaijani groups.30
The PIA was gradually dismantled from 2011, while its leader Hadji Movsum Samada, relying on youth and social networks as well as a network of regional cells, more regularly opposed the authorities and pro-western opposition parties. As Arif Yunusov underlines, the difference between this wave of arrests which affected around thirty activists across the country, and that of 1997 is that these political leaders have this time reached the rank of martyrs, that they have continued their demonstrations without authorization and that they have always been able to count on a significant number of participants “which was unimaginable fourteen years earlier”31. As a result of this dismantling, the Iranian Cultural Center is closed while the Imdad Committee has had to end its activities in Azerbaijan. Likewise, several Hezbollah operatives were arrested in 2009 for preparing terrorist acts against the Israeli Embassy in Baku.

The authorities’ repression of Islamist movements threatening the secularization of the Azerbaijani state, and which of course resonates favorably with Western countries, nonetheless extends to various secular movements and moderate tendencies in Islam. The fight against Hadji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu dates back to 2003 when he called to vote against Ilham Aliev, candidate to succeed his father in the presidential elections, and when he supported the “Our Azerbaijan” bloc and its candidate Issa Gambar from the “Musavat” party. Likewise, following the arrest of the leader of the PIA in January 2011, all Hujjat ul-Islam were successively arrested in the following months and sentenced to heavy prison terms. The MUM is also the object of a dismantling in 2017. Finally concerning the fethullajis, in 2007, the first arrests of Nurdjus disciples took place in 2007 and resumed in 2010-11 after a short respite due to the important lobby in the spheres of power, against the backdrop of a pan-Turkish and anti-nurdjus media campaign to which the CMO joined, in order to meet the demands of its Turkish ally and of its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The repression intensified from 2014-15 with the closure of 11 high schools and the arrest and dismissal of supporters and then from 2017 against ordinary teachers.

This policy embodies the persistence of Soviet methods practiced by communist elites who took on the colors of nationalism, but who nevertheless perfectly retained the old tried and tested methods of the previous era. We will thus have noted the division game used by the authorities in their fight against the rising Salafist trend in the 2000s and then against the Shiite trend of the 2010s in a second step.32

The imposition from above of a loyalist national Islam and the return of underground Islam

We can now say that there has been a recovery of most of the levels of Islam described by Motika33 , by the official hierarchy, that is to say the State, while the actors and movements that have not been recovered are now forced to go underground. The only key to reading such a repression falling as much on the radical Salafist movements or the PIA as on the quietist Salafist movement displaying its loyalty to the state, or a set of secular pro-Western religious movements supporting the opposition or opposed to the international allies of the power in place, is the establishment by forced march of an Islam loyalist to the “neo-monarchy” of the Aliev family.34 The Azerbaijani state thus seeks to promote a national Islam known as “civilized”, “standardized” or “a unified Azerbaijani Islam” with the assistance of Allahshükür Pashazade, by imposing from above an ecumenical Islam by trying to erase the differences between Shiites and Sunnis, as can be seen in the staging of the “unity prayers” which is presented as a specific tradition of the country even though, if Shiites and Sunnis shared the same mosque during the Soviet period, they prayed at different times. It is also a policy that values ​​the pirs as a national heritage which also represents a significant financial windfall35, for which “Islamic entrepreneurs”36 are investing and which does not aggregate any form of political opposition. But it is also an Islam that illustrates the personalization of power and the glorification of the Aliev family with spaces dedicated to the commemoration of the president’s father in mosques and with religious buildings named after them.

At the same time, this Islam is also instrumentalized internationally for the purposes of legitimizing power and dynastic perpetuation. While Heydar Aliev had appealed to the Nurjus schools of Fethullah Gülen’s movement at the time of independence, they were gradually driven out of the country by his son, especially from 2010 in order to spare himself the Turkish ally37 in the framework of the Karabakh conflict and to preserve the slogan “One nation, two States” historically improper and which is only a political slogan since Turkish society is not a model for Azerbaijan, as  the turn taken by the current Turkish government towards Islam remains an overall subject of fairly widely shared mistrust. The search for international alliances in the Islamic world led Ilham Aliev to intensify communication with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)38 of which the country became a member in December 1991, which gave rise to the establishment of the OIC Youth Forum in Baku in 2004 and, ironically, the award of the title of “Capital of Islamic Culture” in 2009 and the organization of around 100 events in Baku the very year of the campaign to close mosques in the country. Power has launched since that time, in a balancing act, with on the one hand an aggressive speech denouncing the presumed Islamophobia of Westerners by exploiting the “crisis of caricatures” and other events in order to rally the Islamic world in its fight against Christian Armenia but also to gradually cement, inside the country, Sunnis and Shiites against a common enemy, while deflecting the accusations leveled against his regime in matters of Human Rights, and on the other hand, presenting itself to European countries and the United States as a model for managing cultural and religious diversity and the only bulwark against Islamic radicalism. This position thus justifies a fierce repression against internal secular opposition forces or simple individual revolts, as revealed by the “Gandja case”39 for example. The use of this “Islamic card” is particularly flagrant at present following the second Karabakh war. The use of religious discourse and the associated gestures40 in the current context of the Karabakh conflict are not intended to galvanize a people already acquired for the cause of the reconquest of its lost territories, which would have, moreover, little effect on a strongly secularized population, but to accentuate its stranglehold on Islam inside the country and in particular to recover the religious rhetoric at the expense of Shiite Islamist activists who used the failure of the Karabakh negotiations to demonstrate their opposition41. And this policy and this sometimes very hawkish speech is fully deployed without any concern about the possible reactions of Western countries with which geopolitical business relations in terms of energy supply are secure. Religious minorities are also instrumentalized in order to present to the world a model of exemplarity in the management of cultural pluralism42.

Thus, all these elements are contributing to the return to the underground of a certain number of religious and politico-religious movements which have gradually become invisible. The dynamics of growing religiosity in Azerbaijan are unaffected by state politics and continue underground. We are thus witnessing, for example, the development of Shiite pilgrimages abroad in Iran to Meshad or in Iraq to Nadjaf where Ali’s tomb is located, or Kerbala where the third Shiite imam Husseyn is buried, to the detriment of the Hajj submissive to quotas, which is  expensive and whose organization is monopolized by the CMB. Long banned during the Soviet period, these pilgrimages, made difficult on Iraqi sites due to the security situation, experienced increased attendance43 from 2006, particularly in Kerbala, a place particularly frequented on the occasion of Arbain. This attendance is also due to the promotion made by Iran, especially since 201644, which does not fail to attract the attention of the Azerbaijani authorities who are now seeking to limit these practices on the pretext of the fight against political Islam45. Thus, the risks of Islamist coloring in the current citizen radicalization should not be underestimated. Under the effect of the repressive policy of the authorities towards a growing fringe of the population which, currently carried by the intoxication of a historic victory of reconquest of its lost territories and the recovery of its territorial sovereignty, but which is not more fooled by their fallout in terms of freedom of expression and standard of living, Islam has become a third political force since the end of the 2000s, alongside the classic political forces, pro-Russian or pro-Western, who organize political life in a binary way in all the South Caucasian republics, a political force which is now continuing its path underground. Since Ilham Aliev has succeeded in confiscating and monopolizing the nationalist discourse46 which has transformed into what can be described as “alievism”, a growing part of the Azerbaijani nation finds refuge in the Islamic message, a resource of meaning and real potential of social cohesion, even if we must remember that the Islamist sphere remains divided and numerically weak compared to a strongly secularized society.

A new “parallel Islam” in Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan, rich in a centuries-old multicultural history, and which has always known how to integrate the cultural influences at the crossroads of which it is located, experienced an exceptional period of religious effervescence when it left the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s, after having seen religion severely repressed for 70 years, a period during which a “parallel Islam” had developed privatized within the family institution and expressed around the popular worship of holy places or pirs very widespread throughout the country. This practice is then gradually questioned by the Azerbaijani youth of the 2000s who have access to a very diversified offer on the competitive market of the “economy of symbolic goods” of the post-independence period, leading them to an increased knowledge of the Koran and Islam, and thereby accentuating, albeit superficially, latent conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis, dormant since the 18th century and that the Russian authorities had occasionally tried to reactivate for their benefit. We are witnessing at this period a profusion of foreign currents trying to gain the ascendancy over the Islamic evolution of the country, including certain politico-religious movements endangering the secular character of the Azerbaijani state forged in the 19th century, but also a great number of reforming and modernizing currents. If a state structuring in matters of management of the religious fact was necessary to protect itself from foreign intrusions and channel disruptive energies for a young independent republic, it quickly experienced drifts aiming simply at the consolidation of the power in place, the elimination of all form of opposition, and the perpetuation of the Aliev dynasty, like the struggle against all forms of opposition and freedom of expression in the country.

The international context of “war against the axis of evil” of the United States and the alliance with the West, necessary to the security of the oil trade, which allowed in 2003 a dynastic succession of the Aliev regime similar to a form of “neo-monarchy” governed by a clan political game which then crushed all forms of pro-Western secular opposition from 2006, as well as the stagnation of negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia thus constituted another pivotal date in the restructuring of the religious landscape of Azerbaijan. The vacuum left by the classic secular and pro-Western opposition forces and the disappointment with the hopes founded by the population for a rapprochement with the West has given way to the emergence of a third force in the country carried by Islamic values ​​and which has been the subject of ruthless repression, a pretext for the extension of the struggle with moderate currents simply opposed to the power in place, with actors calling into question by their mere existence the institutional structuring of the management of religion decided by the authorities or those deemed undesirable in the eyes of international allies. The Islamic rhetoric of power has gradually evolved in order to spare Muslim allies in its fight against Christian Armenia to recover the territorial integrity of the country while uniting Shiites and Sunnis against a common enemy, the West considered Islamophobic, and with of which it nevertheless presents itself as the ultimate bulwark against Islamic radicalism, not to mention the instrumentalization of ethnic minorities in order to better take advantage of an ideal management of multiculturalism and religious pluralism.

Over the past ten years, this dynamic has resulted in a gradual return to the underground of Islam and its practice and an invisibilization of radical forces now acting underground. Failing to arbitrate the religious diversity of the country, the power in place, in order to better ensure its perpetuation, which was its only decision-making criterion in this matter as in many others, made the choice of imposition by the top, and with methods of repression tested during the Soviet period as well as untimely and almost obsessive interventions in the religious sphere, of a loyalist national Islam marked by the valuation of the pirs, the artificial erasure of the differences between Shiites and Sunnis and an important dimension of worship of the reigning family.
A growing number of believers excluded from the sharing of oil resources and deprived of the possibility of joining secular and pro-Western political forces in their image, are now forced to live their faith, as in the days of the USSR, in a semi-clandestine way, within the family, and may be gradually tempted by the forces of politicized Islam which risk making a comeback, in one way or another, as a “boomerang effect” as soon as the opportunity arises and as soon as the geopolitical context will allow it. The opening of borders, new means of communication and the globalization of religion no longer make it possible to lock up Islam as easily and durably as in the days of the Soviet political models of the current government. The exhilaration of the victory of the Second Karabakh War, which will carry the people for a few years, must not hide the dangerous balancing act that Ilham Aliev is playing between partners from both Muslim and Western countries. Azerbaijan can only count on the return of classical secular and pro-Western opposition political forces and on democratic consolidation to avoid a possible radicalization and a progressive binarization of the internal political game between underground Islamist forces supported by the foreigners and a “neo-monarchical” force of the Aliev family petrodollars.

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