Staunton, July 9 – Five days ago, a group of Sunni Muslims, whom the Azerbaijani authorities describe as Wahhabis, attacked a group of Shiia Muslims following an iftar dinner at a mosque in Baku. Yesterday, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported that the authorities have taken control of the mosque involved and have launched an investigation (interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=55856).
The incident itself appears to have been small and so far at least self-contained, but given the sectarian violence sweeping much of the Muslim world, the complexities of Azerbaijan’s religious situation, and the Baku government’s pride in religious tolerance and concerns about stability, any such event inevitably raises questions about the future.
Traditionally, about two-thirds of Azerbaijanis are followers of the Shiia trend in Islam, while the rest are Sunnis. Reflecting that pattern, the Caucasus Muslim Spiritual Directorate in Baku, which was set up in Soviet times and oversees smaller Shiia communities elsewhere in the Caucasus, is headed by the sheikh ul Islam, a Shiite. He has a Sunni deputy.
But that suggests a division among Azerbaijanis that is both more and less than it is. It implies that most Azerbaijanis know with precision the differences between the two trends in Islam and identify closely with one or another. In fact, thanks to Soviet anti-religious policies, many Azerbaijanis knew until very recently at best only that they were traditionally one or the other.
Few of them knew the details of the two trends. But after the collapse of Soviet power and the recovery of Azerbaijani statehood, missionaries and efforts by Sunni Turkey and Shiia Iran to promote Islam in Azerbaijan through the construction of mosques gave this division a new meaning.
Many Azerbaijanis since the 1990s refer to their mosques as “Turkish” or “Iranian” rather than “Sunni” or “Shiia,” a reflection of the political nature of this division rather than the religious one. With time, that has begun to change, but the change is much slower than a simple listing of the categories might suggest.
There are two other aspects to this pattern as well. On the one hand, Turkey and Iran have often used “their” mosques in Azerbaijan to press their state policies. Given its closeness to Ankara, Turkish efforts in this regard have seldom been a problem for Baku, even though most Azerbaijanis are traditionally Shiia.
But when Iran has done so, the situation is different and far more prickly. Not only is Iran a political competitor internationally, but there are more than 30 million ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran, a group that has often been oppressed but some of whose members have risen to the highest positions in the Iranian religious and political elites.
On occasion, Tehran has actively supported Shiia groups inside Azerbaijan, and it has regularly accused Baku of tolerance for or even active support of groups seeking the liberation of what they call “Southern Azerbaijan.” That situation in turn has been exacerbated by Western commentators who have talked about using ethnic Azerbaijanis against Tehran.
And on the other hand, while Azerbaijan is more ethnically homogeneous today than it has ever been, at least regarding the population now under Baku’s control rather than Armenian occupation, there are ethnic minorities in both the northern and southern portions of the country that Iran and others have exploited in the past.
In most cases, these external actors have played on religious as well as ethnic differences to advance their cause, and consequently, Baku not surprisingly has viewed their actions as being even more threatening and likely to spread to the rest of the country than would otherwise have been the case.
Post-Soviet Azerbaijan has long presented itself as a model of religious tolerance, and anything that calls that into question is a matter of serious concern in Baku, especially since using repressive measures to contain a religious conflict is unlikely to be as effective as using the same measures to dominate civil society.
As events elsewhere have shown, using force against protests based in religion is often like fighting a grease fire with water: dousing the outbreak can have the effect not of extinguishing the flames but of spreading them. Whether that pattern will be true in this case remains to be seen.