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November 20, 2012, Tuesday

Islam in Azerbaijan: unity and diversity

The Baku-based think tank the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) has just released a survey titled “Islam in Azerbaijan.” The poll questioned 2000 residents across the country in 2012 and provides useful insights into current religious trends, around which there is a general lack of understanding, both domestically and internationally.

Under Soviet rule, Azerbaijanis, along with other Muslim peoples in the USSR, were prevented from practicing their religion. After independence, the country's religious tradition lacked any kind of strong national framework, and it was vulnerable to the influence of neighboring countries. Given the absence of independent information and instruction on the Islamic faith during the early 1990s, people were easily drawn in by Islamic “missionaries” who claimed to represent the true meaning of Islam, while the mosques were filled with mullahs educated in Iran. The two-fold failure of Azerbaijan's authorities to provide religious education or to address the use of Islamic education as a conduit for national propaganda by external actors (notably Iran), increased societal divisions when it came to religion. If there was a winner, it was the external actors who gained influence among Azerbaijan's Muslim populations (again, Iran, also the Saudi-oriented Salafi movement), where they portrayed secularism as the rival of Islam. The increasing size of the radical movement in recent years has proved once more that young generations are vulnerable to unfiltered radical propaganda in mosques and religious communities, and the threat of conflict between various Islamic sects is no longer fiction.

The new study is timely, bringing an interesting and modern picture of Islam's place in society and its relationship with the secular character of the state. Though the study only represents the views of a small part of the population, it provides an important starting point for understanding Islam in Azerbaijan.

According to the findings, 30.2% identify themselves as committed believers in God, while 66% say they are “simply believers.” The same poll found that that 10.3% of respondents said that over the last five years, they had begun to believe more than they had in the past. The survey gets interesting when we begin to look at the sources of religious education. Just over a fifth of respondents, or 21.8%, said that they had learned about Islam from religious books other than the Koran, 16% from the Koran itself, 27.2% from television, 34.4% from friends and family, 34.2% from burial ceremonies, and 10.4% from visiting Islamic religious places (including mosques, etc.). In short, close to 70% of Azerbaijanis learn about Islam from questionable sources, and in that sense they are extremely vulnerable to misinformation in the name of Islam. The corollary to that, of course, is that the Islamic faith itself is exposed to distortion -- an increasing worry in the post-9/11 era where Islam is often subject to a knee-jerk association with fundamentalism.

The question of religious education is part of a long-running debate in Azerbaijan in terms of delivery, content and context. The majority of the population is not eager to see religious teaching in secondary schools and colleges. The poll's coordinator and a research fellow at the CSS, Sahib Jafarov, stated that putting religious education in the curriculum of state schools is incompatible with the goals and ideology of a secular state. He adds that “the only way to educate people about Islam, and to accurately represent moderate Islam is with the participation of the mass media, due to the perception that the mass media is a primary source of information among the population.”

Actually, what Jafarov suggests is that even a commitment from the media would be insufficient to address the knowledge and understanding deficit. Only a rounded and balanced religious education program can do that. While the poll found that people are becoming more interested religious issues, it also revealed that paradoxically, more than 50% “do not fast currently, or plan to in the future;” 57% do not perform Namaz; 42% do not attend a mosque; 32% only go to the mosque and other holy places during Muharram, the first sacred month in the Islamic calendar.

The main debate about Islam in Azerbaijan revolves around the radical version of Shi'a Islam, imported from Iran. There is also the Wahhabi congregation from the Middle East, which is very active in the North Caucasus. However, it is important to remember that there are several other religious groups also battling for influence. Even the Salafi/Wahhabi movement has not succeeded in filling the religious vacuum: 45% of respondents expressed active distaste for Wahhabism, and a further 15% said they didn't like the behavior of the Wahhabis, and 30% said that they associate the branch with extremism. This is mainly due to broadcast media coverage, which especially since 9/11, has portrayed links between the extremist religious movement and terrorist activities in Middle East. There has also been local upset. Last year, a group was arrested following a foiled plot to attack Western embassies in Baku.

In 2010 the national debate on the place of Islam in society escalated when Azerbaijan banned the wearing of the hijab in secondary schools, which sparked protests. The ban is supported by 46% of the survey's respondents, while 40% are neutral. Generally speaking, the public considers the hijab ban as an initial step in combating radical Islam. With regard to the question of national governance and state identity, only 5% support a religious state, while more than 50% are in favor of a secular state.

These findings demonstrate first and foremost the need for religious education, the importance of public debate, and the need for accurate portrayals of religious dogma and traditions. In the absence of these commitments, there will be more space for the possible growth of radical Islamic tendencies.

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