Islamism in Azerbaijan: A Rising but Manageable Threat

5 MINS READMay 7, 2012 | 12:33 GMT
A mosque in front of the Baku Flame Towers

Islamism, or the political ideology that advocates an Islamic state, has been a negligible movement in Azerbaijan compared to some of the Central Asian Caucasus state's neighbors. Nominally a secular state for nearly 70 years under the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is home to a population that overwhelmingly identifies itself as Muslim, but these religious adherents largely have abstained from overtly political and militant activities.

But it appears that piety is on the rise in Azerbaijan. Indeed, mosque attendance and construction have increased since the country gained independence in 1991. That year, there were fewer than 40 mosques in Azerbaijan; at present, there are more than 1,700. More important, Islamism also appears to be climbing, as evidenced by increased religious rallies and religious schools.

The reasons for this increase are manifold. Azerbaijan is situated between two traditionally Islamist areas — Iran and Russia's North Caucasus region — that through various groups are attempting to spread their own versions of Islamism throughout the country. With the rise of these groups comes the concern that their members could destabilize the country through radicalism. Radical Islamism may increase in the long term, but Baku will be able to manage the situation through its security apparatus and through political accommodation with nonviolent groups.

Several factors have led to the increased religiosity in Azerbaijan. Religion was suppressed at the public level under Soviet rule for 70 years. The proliferation of mosques in the 20 years since independence suggests that more Azerbaijanis are taking advantage of their religious freedom. In addition, high unemployment has led many uneducated and/or poor Azerbaijani youths to turn to religion to deal with their grievances and to benefit from its related social services.

More important, external powers are using religious proxy groups to gain influence in Azerbaijan. These powers include Iran, which advocates Shi'ism; Turkey, where an influential Islamist organization, the Gulenist movement, has long been trying to establish a foothold in Azerbaijan; and Dagestan, a republic in the Caucasus that advocates Salafism. Collectively, these three groups constitute the most substantial Islamist threat to the Azerbaijani state.

Iran and the Shia

Iran long tried to use its brand of Shiite Islamism to gain influence in its northern neighbor, where roughly 80 percent of all Muslims are Shiite. To that end, Iran has focused its efforts on Southern Azerbaijan's ethnic Talysh, who have religious, ethnic and linguistic links to Iranians. Iran also has tried to exert influence in villages close to Baku. The people of these villages — Nardaran, for example — generally are considered very religious, making them particularly susceptible to Iranian influence. In addition, the influential Juma Mosque in central Baku actively professes Shiite ideology, and Iran could use the mosque's influence to its advantage.

One way Iran is spreading its influence is by supporting and financing the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, a political party formed in Nardaran that has been banned by the government. The party continues to operate extralegally, participating in anti-government rallies and supporting Islamic issues. Such protests are fairly common in Azerbaijan, but so far government forces have kept the situation under control by monitoring mosques, trying to eliminate religious literature and making arrests. Because diplomatic relations with Iran currently are tense, Baku remains concerned about the spread of Shiite Islamists within its borders.

Turkey and the Gulenists

The Gulenist movement is a social offshoot of Sunnism that is religiously liberal but socially conservative. Founded in Turkey by Muslim scholar Said Nursi and currently led by Fethullah Gulen, the Gulenist movement is active in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries. In Azerbaijan, the Gulenist movement has become renowned for the formation of its schools, which are located in most major cities, including Baku, Ganja and Sumgayit.

The movement is relatively passive and, for now, entirely apolitical. Thus, the group cannot be considered Islamist, even though it is trying to spread its own form of Islam. Wary of the spread of the movement, the government has yet to interfere with the Gulenists because so far they have not pursued their political agenda.

Baku mainly is concerned that the Gulenists are trying to integrate themselves into the Azerbaijani military. Having already seen the Islamist evolution in Turkey over the past decade, Azerbaijan does not want to suffer the same fate.

Dagestan and the Salafists

Perhaps the most pressing Islamist threat to Baku is that of the Salafists, who came to northwest Azerbaijan from Dagestan in the mid-1990s after the war between Russia and Chechnya. There are an estimated 10,000-25,000 Salafists currently in Azerbaijan, and the Salafists' most famous mosque, the Abu Bakr mosque in Baku, has a Friday attendance of 5,000-7,000. While there clearly is a Salafist presence in the capital, most Salafists reside in ethnic minority communities, such as those of the Lezgins and Avars in the north.

Salafism is an ultraconservative interpretation of Sunni Islam. However, many Salafists are nonviolent, choosing merely to attend mosque and follow Salafist ideals. Militant Salafists, on the other hand, are willing to achieve an Islamic state through violence and destabilization.

Understanding the threat posed by militant Salafists requires an understanding of Dagestan, the region from which they hail. The Caucasus republic shares a border with Azerbaijan, and despite the mountainous terrain the proximity facilitates the spread of people — and religion — across the border. That militancy in Dagestan has remained high for the past few years is particularly concerning for Baku. There were roughly 373 militant attacks there in 2008 but 546 attacks in 2011.

However, in recent years militant attacks in Azerbaijan have been relatively infrequent. Simply put, there are fewer militants in Azerbaijan than there are in Dagestan. Moreover, Azerbaijan's security forces are robust. In the past three years, at least 30 militants have been arrested in raids conducted by the Ministry of National Security. In fact, during the same time span no successful militant attack has been conducted in Azerbaijan.

But there is reason to believe attacks may increase in the coming years. Historically, the larger influxes of Dagestani militants in Azerbaijan occurred after militants openly fought with Russian security forces. Given that the 2014 Winter Olympics will take place in Sochi, Russia, Moscow will continue to focus on clamping down on militancy in the Caucasus — with a focus on Dagestan. And if historical trends hold, militants will flee Dagestan for Azerbaijan as Russia cracks down.

Azerbaijan will continue to challenge the rise of religiosity and Islamism within its borders. Non-militant Islamists can be managed peacefully so long as they remain largely apolitical, and Azerbaijani security services are strong enough to handle the threat posed by militant Islamists. More Salafist militants will enter the country ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, so Islamist militancy will continue to be an issue for Baku — but not one that will threaten the regime in the near term.

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