Staunton, May 14 – In a step that might seem absurd given the composition of Armenia’s population but that appears likely to send shockwaves through the Caucasus and perhaps further, the Assembly of Muslims of Armenia has created the position of mufti for the republic and named Arsen Safaryan, a graduate of an Iranian seminary in Qum, to head it.
There are three reasons for thinking that this move may have far more consequences than a first glance might suggest. First, the Assembly of Muslims of Armenia explicitly views the new muftiate as the supervisory body for Muslims not only in Armenia but in occupied Karabakh, a further challenge to the restoration of Azerbaijani sovereignty there.
Second, this move challenges the Baku-based Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Caucasus led by Allakhshukyur Pashazade, who claims to supervise Shiites across the former Soviet space, given that Armenian Muslims say the Soviet-era holdover’s religious training is “doubtful” (caucasreview.com/2015/05/izbran-muftij-armenii-i-nagornogo-karabaha/).
And third, this move gives Iran an opening to expand its influence among Shiia not only in the post-Soviet space, also a direct challenge to Azerbaijan, but also among the nearly 400,000 Armenian Muslims (the Hemshins) living in the Middle East and Europe and also among the Yezidis who vastly outnumber the Shiia in Armenia.
Prior to the Armenian-Azerbaijani war, there were thousands of Azerbaijani Muslims in Armenia, but most of them have fled, and Muslims there, most of whom are ethnically Armenian, number only about 1,000 people in all; and there is only one working mosque. In addition, there are Muslim Kurds and the Yezidis, a group some but not all count as Islamic.
Even if one adds the population of Nagorno-Karabakh to this group, the number of Muslims is still small: Although they formed more than a quarter of the population of the autonomy prior to the start of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war in 1988, Muslims there number only a few hundred there now.
The small size of the Muslim community in Armenia and Armenian-controlled areas of Azerbaijan thus strongly suggests that the creation of a Yerevan muftiate is more about foreign than domestic policy and may advance Iranian interests even more than Armenian ones, undermining the Baku MSD and giving Iran another channel to spread its influence.