Religion in Azerbaijan

Between Tolerance and Repression

Although the majority of the population in Azerbaijan is Shiite, the country is also home to dozens of religious minorities and prides itself on its reputation for tolerance. For practicing Muslims, however, the threat of repression is never very far away – should they happen to get on the wrong side of the authorities. By Klaus Heymach

photo: Klaus Heymach
Where there were only 18 mosques in the entire country 20 years ago, there are now over 1700. However, Azerbaijan has an ambivalent relationship to its Muslims. Prayer hall of the Juma Mosque in Baku

​​Friday afternoon in Baku's old town. The sun is shining over the restored caravanserais and out across the Caspian Sea. On the rooves of the Art Nouveau palaces liveried waiters are serving cappuccinos and cocktails, while businesspeople relax at the end of a busy week.

The restaurant loudspeakers are playing oriental sounding jazz while the muezzin's call to prayer blares from the minarets of the old mosques. But no one is paying it any heed – religion plays no great part in the public life of Azerbaijan.

"Ninety-six per cent of Azerbaijanis are Muslim, but only eight per cent practice their religion," says Hidayat Oruyov, Minister for Works with Religious Associations, whose office is located in the middle of the bustling old town.

Fridays, which are actually holy days for Muslims, are workdays here – only Saturdays and Sundays are free in this former Soviet republic. "I was brought up an atheist," says the 66-year-old Oruyov, who is now charged with looking after the relationship between religion and state. "That was the official state doctrine."

Azerbaijan has been secular for a long time, Oruyov explains, but it has never been hostile to religion: "Our country has always been very tolerant." In Soviet times Azerbaijan gained a reputation as the only republic where anti-Semitism and violence against other confessions were unknown. "We turned this tolerance into state policy when we became independent," the minister declares.

View of the city center of baku and of the Juma Mosque (photo: Klaus Heymach)
Religious tolerance, as valuable an export as its oil and gas: "The Azerbaijani government is doing everything possible to ensure the religious freedom of everyone," says the Minister for Works with Religious Associations, Hidayat Oruyov

​​Where there were only 18 mosques in the entire country 20 years ago, there are now over 1700 and more than fifty officially registered religious communities. "The Azerbaijani government does all it can to ensure the religious freedom of all of them." The former German ambassador's praise Baku's religious tolerance, which he felt should be as valuable an export as its oil and gas, was taken to heart, and the sentiment has become part of the city's self-image.

70 years of communism, 20 years of capitalism

One of Azerbaijan's smallest religious communities has built its church alongside the harbour in Baku's new town. In the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Roman Catholics celebrate the mass on Sundays: firstly in the Russian liturgical language and then in English for the Asians, South Americans and Europeans who work here in the oil business or in the various embassies. There are only 300 Catholic Azerbaijanis, but the church is always full for English mass, says Father Vladimir Fekete.

Though he represents a minority religion, Fekete, who wears his dog-collar out on the street as well as in church, marvels at the atmosphere of benevolent openness he encounters everywhere in the city. "I have yet to come across anyone who is strongly opposed to other religions, or, indeed, to religion in general. However, religious practice, prayer and church attendance, are not all that they might be, admits the native Slovak. This state of affairs "is the consequence of seventy years of communism and twenty years of capitalism."

Church of the Immaculate Conception in Baku (photo: Klaus Heymach)
A post-Soviet haven for religious practice? "I have yet to come across anyone who is strongly opposed to other religions, or, indeed, to religion in general," says Father Vladimir Fekete

​​There is not as much religious freedom as in Europe, Fekete says. His small church, for example, has no official ministry registration and some other religious groups are simply denied recognition. "But, given their circumstances, the Azerbaijanis are very tolerant." No comparison with strict Muslim countries such as neighbouring Iran, Fekete says.

The Aliyev personality cult

That said, from a purely religious point of view, Azerbaijan is part of the Shiite Crescent. Nine out of ten Muslims here believe in the twelve Imams. Southern Azerbaijan shares a border of over 500 kilometres with the provinces known as East and West Azerbaijan which are actually in northern Iran and home to millions of ethnic Azeri.

The Azerbaijanis tend to be rather suspicious of the predominating role of Islam and the virulent anti-Americanism characteristic of their southern neighbours; despite the centuries old common roots they share. The threat of an Islamisation or radicalisation of the population is something that worries the Azerbaijani government, however – whether it come from Iran or through the growing influence of Sunni fundamentalism in the Islamic world.

Poster of the former president Haidar Aliyev across a pedestrian underpass (photo: Klaus Heymach)
Fear of Islamisation: The government tolerates no other ideologies alongside the personality cult around their late president Haidar Aliyev, writes Klaus Heymach

​​There would, after all, appear to be little room for a Muslim religious renaissance, or the rise of a political Islam, alongside the personality cult that has been built up around the late president Haidar Aliyev. From provincial market squares to the airport in Baku, every public place or institution of any significance bears the name of the politician who dominated the political scene in the south Caucasus republic for decades. Facades and streets are adorned with his aphorisms.

As long ago as 1969 Aliyev was already head of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, shortly before his death in 2003 he appointed his son as his successor in the presidential office.

Fear of mosques

In a controversial referendum last year the head of state had a clause that would have limited his potential period in office deleted from the constitution. At the same time he tightened the rules for the registration of religious groups. As a result, several mosques in Baku were closed down, supposedly because they lacked the proper registration, were infringing against building regulations or in need of renovation – among them some which had been built with Turkish or Saudi Arabian money.

Religious Associations Minister Oruyov stresses that there was no political motivation behind the closures – but adds that Azerbaijan will not accept any "interference from foreign powers".

Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, on the other hand, is of the opinion that "the government seems to have become terribly afraid of mosques." Before the restoration of the Juma Mosque, the young man preached in the eclectic old town building. But the authorities used the temporary closure of the mosque six years ago to unceremoniously exclude both the government critic and the worshippers from the building.

Muslim during prayer in the Juma Mosque in Baku (photo: Klaus Heymach)
Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, imam of the Juma Mosque, believes that "the government seems to have become terribly afraid of mosques"

​​Since then worshippers have found an alternative backyard meeting place in a business district – not to pray, however. The 34-year-old Ibrahimoglu also publishes a newspaper, teaches philosophy and is an active member of several organisations involved in freedom of religion and freedom of opinion issues.

"The groups who don't cause the government any problems are left alone," Ibrahimoglu says. "Those who dissent from the government line, however, need to watch out." It was following his calls for protest in the wake of the 2003 Aliyev election – which was overshadowed by allegations of fraud – that the vocal imam fell from grace with the government. Ibrahimoglu is convinced that "self-confident, actively religious Muslims face the same problems with the authorities as all others who represent civil society. They are not approved of."

The imam himself has close contact to human rights groups in Baku and campaigns on behalf of imprisoned bloggers and for newspapers threatened with closure. "Our concept of religion is not restricted to prayer and fasting," says Ibrahimoglu. "We are also committed to closer ties with Europe and to protesting against police brutality. We create our own agenda. That is what worries the government."

Klaus Heymach

© Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Editors: Nimet Seker, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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