Sunday, January 24, 2021

Qarabagh War Undercut Notion that Shiite-Sunni Divide is Key in Muslim World, Semyonv Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 21 – Both inside Azerbaijan and internationally, the Qarabagh war highlighted something many have been reluctant to recognize: differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, as important as they are, are far less significant in what individual Muslims and Muslim states do than other concerns and calculations, Kirill Semyonov says.

            The Moscow specialist on the Islamic world says that this is true both within Azerbaijan and across the Muslim world, something that is obscured by propaganda promoted by one or another government in the hopes of gaining allies for positions that reflect not these differences but others instead (

            “Despite the fact that the majority of Azerbaijanis are considered to be Shiites,” Semyonov says, “there are no obstacles in the country for the dissemination and profession of Sunnism, the number of whose followers is only increasing,” a reflection of this tolerance and of Soviet policies which mean most new Sunnis weren’t convinced Shiites earlier.

            Turkey as part of its soft power program to expand links between the two Turkic peoples has promoted Sunnism in Azerbaijan. Various Turkish Sufi jamaats operate there, and Azerbaijanis follow Turkish television programs which promote Turkishness and Sunnism. But Baku is comfortable with that, far more comfortable than with Shiite states.

            Such inter-confessional accord, of course, is always conditional. If something happens to upset it, there can be problems, the Moscow analyst says. But it is also the case that what is occurring in Azerbaijan has become “a trigger” that is producing “serious changes between Sunnis and Shites in the Islamic world as a whole.” And these “have a positive character.”

            All Muslims can see that the Shiite majority in Azerbaijan has not prevented Sunni Turkey from becoming allies. More than that, the countries of the Middle East lined up on one side or another during the recent Qarabagh fighting not because they were Shiites like most Azerbaijanis or not but for political and geopolitical reasons.

            “The worldwide umma related to Azerbaijan in the first instance as to a country populated by Muslims and did not stress the dominance of Shiism,” Semyonov says. It “supported the Azerbaijani people in its struggle. And this was true of both Shiite majority and Sunni majority states.

            According to the analyst, “the Shiite-Sunni conflict” at least as a political factor “is a product of propaganda, the result of the conflict between Iran and certain Sunni monarchies of the Gulf. Both they and others use this confessional factors as one of the arguments in this conflict.”

            And that means, especially now, that “in the Islamic world, the dividing line between Shiites and Sunnis is not so significant and is not the chief factor which blocks unity, in contrast to the hegemonic strivings of a number of the most Sunni governments or Iran.” That is likely to be even more the case after the Qarabagh fighting, Semyonov concludes.


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