Staunton, March 27 – Many countries in the post-Soviet space are worried what may happen when those of their citizens who went to fight for one or another side in the conflicts in the Middle East, but most being overwhelmingly Sunni need to worry about a threat coming from that direction.
But there is one exception, Azerbaijan, two thirds of whose population is traditionally Shiia and thus unlikely to be attracted to the ISIS banner and who fought for Syria’s Asad, and only one third Sunni who may have fought for the Islamic State. As a result, when its combatants return, they may continue the battle they were drawn into abroad.
According to Azerbaijani officials, “the total number of citizens of Azerbaijan who have taken part in military actions in Syria and Iraq reached a thousand.” Two hundred were killed, and most have returned home, although some have gone to Russia or Europe, Ali Abbasov says in a report on the situation (onkavkaz.com/news/2180-esli-sunnity-azerbaidzhana-uezzhali-voevat-za-ig-to-shiity-voevali-za-asada-no-smi-ob-etom-molc.html).
Of those who have returned, approximately a hundred have been arrested; but enough have entered back into the life of the country to cause difficulties in what Abbasov calls “the complex religious situation in Azerbaijan,” one in which the Shiia are less religious than the Sunnis and the Sunnis less Azerbaijani on average than the Shiia.
Most of the Sunnis in Azerbaijan are Lezgins, Avars, Rutuls, and Tsakhurs who live in the northern portion of the country, but some Azerbaijanis living in that region also are traditionally Sunni, and in recent decades there has been a shift by some Azerbaijanis from “traditional Shiite families to Sunni Islam. The reverse happens but less often.
Abbasov spoke to two experts from Azerbaijan, both of whom insisted on anonymity. The first said that most Azerbaijanis were hostile and afraid to the returnees, especially Shiia who fought against the Syrian authorities. Such people, he said, most view as terrorists or even worse.
The second said that one should not get hung up on the differences between Sunnis and Shiia because most Azerbaijanis do not know the real differences. Individual from either side of the divide may be attracted by dynamic mullahs and missionaries; and that is likely to remain so among the returnees.
Given growing pressure on Islamic institutions in Azerbaijan, he continued, some may shift from one side to the other or become even more radical in their views. That is because the Azerbaijanis and especially younger ones tend to go to extremes whenever they take up a cause.
The first expert suggested that the unwillingness of Azerbaijani authorities to acknowledge and report about those of its nationals who fought for Bashar Asad is making the development of a counter-extremism strategy more difficult. And the second added that attacks against civic institutions can be expected as well as attacks by each group on the other.