Islam in Azerbaijan: On the Rise?

I always appreciate it when thoughtful journalists write stories about Azerbaijan, since there's so little written by anyone who understands that part of the world. RFE/RL's Liz Fuller knows what she's talking about.

But her recent RFE/RL series on Islam in Azerbaijan raised a lot of questions for me. With its corrupt government, human rights and democracy abuses ignored by the west, appalling living conditions outside Baku and tidal wave of misspent oil wealth rolling in, Azerbaijan does, on paper, seem like fertile ground for an Islamic surge. I wish the stories provided more insight into the current situation.

This story is an evergreen. People were talking about the rise of political Islam when I moved to Baku three years ago, and before the presidential election in 2003, and during the chaos of the '90s. But no one has really provided much data to back this assertion up other than "a lot of people pray at Abu-Bakr Mosque" and a lot of new Mosques have been built. I know data can be hard to collect in Azerbaijan, but these assertions do little to illuminate the issue.

The lede on the article claims:

"With the eclipse of the political opposition in Azerbaijan, Islam is increasingly poised to fill the ideological vacuum."

The Azerbaijan opposition was eclipsed a long time ago. There hasn't been a viable opposition in years, both because the authoritarian government won't allow one and the opposition parties' inherent weaknesses. What's changed?

The second article about Alternative Forms of Islam, spends a good deal of space talking about the devoutly religious community of Nardaran north of Baku. Residents here frequently clashed with authorities in the early part of the 2000s. But the article admits that besides a shooting in January 2006 (over a year and a half ago), there hasn't been any unrest in Nardaran since October 2003. Nardaran: not news.

No  god but allah

If I wanted to know what's going on with Shi'a proselytizing, I'd go poke around Lankaran on the Iranian border. There are lots and lots of things going on down there, some related to Islam and some to other activities. The poorest people in the country live there and they have a lot in common culturally and ethnically with their neighbors to the south.
But, instead this is what we we get:

"There is, however, a second religious congregation that has been identified by the government with pro-Iranian Shi'a Islam. The head of that congregation is a charismatic young Islamic scholar and human rights activist, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who received his religious education in Qom, Iran... According to the U.S.-based Scholar Svante Cornell, "Ibrahimoglu 's passionate speeches and antigovernmental rhetoric have attracted a large number of followers in a short period. It is the combination of Islamic roots and modern democratic rhetoric that make Ibrahimoglu different from other mullahs, and which allow him to target young Azerbaijanis with secular minds....

...Ibrahimoglu's open support for opposition candidate Isa Qambar in the October 2003 presidential election led to his arrest in early December 2003 on charges of involvement in the mass clashes in Baku between police and opposition supporters the day after the election, and he was given a five-year suspended sentence in April 2004. Meanwhile, police forced his congregation -- which had never formally registered with the authorities -- to vacate the Cuma mosque in Baku which it had used since 1992.

Ibrahimoglu's open criticism of the ruling regime is not news. He is always the go-to guy for journalists who want to write about Islam in Azerbaijan. As the article points out, he was arrested for supporting Isa Gambar...back in 2003! What's he been up to lately? When I was there in 2004-2006, the answer was "not much." He was a non-issue in the Parliamentary election of 2005. He may be young and charismatic and have a group of activists behind him, but he has no real organization and no political juice.

Finally, this statement really caught my attention:

"Traditionally, most Azerbaijanis are Shi'ites, while a minority are Sunnis. The ratio is approximately 65 percent Shi'a and 35 percent Sunni, with Sunnis predominate in the northern regions of the country bordering on Daghestan, and Shi'ites more numerous in the south, especially districts bordering on Iran."

Wow --35% Sunni? Where did that number come from? Azerbaijan's Shi'a population is typically described as anywhere from 87% (1989 census) to 80% (CIA World Fact Book), which makes sense given its geographic location. Does this increase in Sunnis indicate that the Saudis or Kuwaitis or even the Turks are making inroads? I would like to have learned a little more about that, especially about the "moderate Hanafi school of Islam promoted by the Turkish NGO Nur (Light)." The Turks are proselytizing in neighboring Turkic Republics? Now that's news.

I don't disagree at all that Azerbaijan --with its poor governance and corruption -- should be on the radar of those looking for the next trouble spot. Some up-to-date insight and data would make it a lot easier to assess whether this is something to worry about now or five years from now.