Staunton, April 2 – When Azerbaijani soldiers shouted “Allah is Great” during the Qarabagh war, many suggested they did so because they did not want to use the word “hurrah” because of its Russian origins. But President Ilham Aliyev’s increase in Islamic rhetoric since the victory there has led to a debate about what is going on.
Some argue that Baku, like Ankara, increasingly feels itself part of the Islamic world and wants to identify with it against the Christian West, something easy for Azerbaijan to do in this case because Armenia is for many an embodiment of that world. But others argue that something else is going on, something far more consistent with Baku’s past position.
Among them is French journalist Paul Tavignot, the correspondent for Le Monde in Baku. In a new article, he argues that Aliyev is talking more about Islam because he wants to ensure that he can use it rather than risking the rise of a situation in which it would use him or threaten his rule (lemonde.fr/international/article/2021/04/01/comment-bakou-instrumentalise-l-islam_6075237_3210.html).
Many in Azerbaijan were disturbed when they heard Aliyev’s Islamic rhetoric because up to now, he has stressed tolerance and multi-culturalism as state policy and had shown relatively little interest in Islam himself, the French journalist says. But experts say there is a good reason Aliyev is talking about Muslim themes now.
Altay Göyüşov, a Baku-based expert on Islam, says that what Aliyev is doing by his remarks is seeking to accelerate the domestication and thus state control of Muslim organizations and believers.
According to him, “Islamist and especially Shite activism always has been in opposition to the secular authoritarian regime which by its nature does not tolerate independent activity and seeks to control and direct all public discussions in the country. The war gave the authorities the chance to use the religious discourse of the Islamists for its own goals.”
By using Islamic rhetoric, Göyüşov and Tavignot say, Baku helps to prevent any fragmentation of the country between the 70 percent who are Shiia and the 30 percent who are Sunni. In Azerbaijan unlike in most other places, the two groups get along and do not see themselves as antagonists, but there is always the risk that could change.
Göyüşov argues that “the main function of the Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus is to control mosques and to appoint both Shiite and Sunni imams so as to exclude radicals of either group.” It has been largely successful, although tensions have on occasion broken through and some Muslims have gone underground.
The Administration is able to keep the imams under control because it pays most of them with funds it receives from the government through a foundation Baku has established to evade the provisions of the Azerbaijan constitution banning state support for any religious group, Tavignot says.
But at present, the Administration has appointed only about 600 imams for the 2200 mosques in Azerbaijan. That means it doesn’t control all of the imams or all of the mosques, although it is certainly the case that the Administration, headed by a Shiia and with a Sunni deputy, hopes to control all 2200.
Not all Muslims in Azerbaijan are pleased with either the Administration or the Aliyev government. They feel that both are too interested in control and too little interested in defending the principles of Islam and the rights of Muslims. Aliyev’s new rhetoric, the Le Monde article suggests, is intended to prevent any further radicalization.