Last Friday, I received a phone call from Mr. Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, the well-known Imam of Baku's Cuma Mosque, who wanted to comment on my post on Islam in Azerbaijan. We spoke briefly through an interpreter.
He followed up with this email, posted in its entirely (with minor language edits for clarity):
Dear Christine Quirk,
I would like to greet you again. Your article "Islam in Azerbaijan: On the Rise?" was a very unexpected pleasure.
Over the last years, both our local mass-media and the foreign mass-media have speculated about the allegedly rising political Islamization. I do not know if is it naiveté, deliberate indoctrination, or the result of an unprofessional approach. But I am absolutely sure that it is very useful for our corrupted and heavy-handed authorities, for some losers and activists in the opposition, and for hawks in the west that want to apply the process in the Middle East to Azerbaijan.
Of course, such an issue is also very useful for the marginalized and adventurers that cover themselves with Islamic slogans.
Concerning me, you pointed absolutely correct that I am focused like a civic activist and an enlightener.
By the way, there is no political scene in which Islamic powers could participate.
In conclusion I express my deep gratitude for your independent approach in this case, that is far away from general stereotypes and dogma.
Mr. Ibrahimoglu brings up a whole angle that I opted not to address in the original post: Who benefits from the perception that Islam is on the rise in Azerbaijan? In his email, he mentions the three entities:
- The Government: The perception of increasing Islamification provides internal and external political cover to a dictatorship that does, to some degree, care about international opinion. The fight against "wahabbists" is broad and relies on many tools that are already in the government's toolbox. Any person or group that takes issue with the official line can be labeled a "wahabbist." The designation both scares an already cowed population and pushes all the right buttons in the west. In the absence of a free media and a transparent judicial system based on the rule of law, the label sticks regardless of evidence to the contrary. Externally, if the regime is a "good partner" in the "War on Terra," Western governments have an excuse to do what they would have done anyway: look the other way when elections are stolen, journalists are killed or imprisoned and political parties restricted.
- The Opposition Parties: The parties frequently harp on the message that if the population doesn't have an outlet for its discontent, people will have no choice but to turn to religious movements that are already providing social, health and welfare programs. I don't completely disagree with the logic of this, but I don't see a lot of evidence it's happening. Furthermore, under that logic, the feeble opposition parties deserve a portion the blame as well for their pathological inability to come up with a rationale for people to support them other than "we're not them." Finally, there has to be political space for Islamic movements to operate and, as the Imam points out, there isn't any in Azerbaijan.
- Western "Hawks:" There's a lot at stake in Azerbaijan. It's rare that so many of the forces shaping geopolitics today (energy, terrorism, trafficking, corruption, Islam, Iran, Russia, Turkey) are grinding away on one small country no one has ever heard of. There are plenty of people in the U.S. whose job security and retirement homes in Bermuda depend on ensuring stability in Azerbaijan.
As a religious leader who has had a number of run-ins with authorities in Baku and someone who has a reputation as a moderate human rights activist, Mr. Ibrahimoglu brings a unique perspective to this discussion. I responded to his email with some follow-up questions. Should he respond, I will also post them here.