Over the past year, a hefty chunk of the media’s Azerbaijan spotlight has been on the Karabakh crisis and the heavy war against the neighboring Armenia. This somehow distracted the attention from the crackdown on the opposition and religious movements in Azerbaijan, especially the Shiites who are the majority in the Cacasusian country.
AhlulBayt News Agency (ABNA): Over the past year, a hefty chunk of the media’s Azerbaijan spotlight has been on the Karabakh crisis and the heavy war against the neighboring Armenia. This somehow distracted the attention from the crackdown on the opposition and religious movements in Azerbaijan, especially the Shiites who are the majority in the Cacasusian country.
In early April, the trial of the prominent Shiite cleric and the deputy leader of Islamic Party of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev was held for “unproven and cliché” charges of collaborating with foreign governments and organizations. Hajj Ilham was in detention since March 2019 and was subjected to torture and interrogation. The top cleric is facing 18 years in prison for what many call “unfounded” charges.
Haj Aliyev had previously been sentenced to two years in prison for protesting against the ban on hijab in Azerbaijani schools as a result of the government's repressive policies targeting the Islamic factions, especially Shiites.
The Islamic Party was founded in 1992 and was banned only a few years after its establishment. The party, which has a wide popular base among the people, is led by Movsum Samadov, who has been in jail since 2010 for his opposition to Baku's relations with the Israeli regime and the US, as well as holding stances again against the Hijab ban.
Since 2010, Islamophobia has become an active government posture in Azerbaijan, putting the key Islamic leaders under pressure.
Another important Shiite movement is the "Muslim Unity Movement", led by Tale Baqerzadeh, which was founded in 2015 and managed to attract many people in a short period of time with its nationalist and Islamic ideology. In addition to banning the movement, the government arrested Bagherzadeh and constantly summons other leaders of the movement and restricts their political and social activities.
“Caviar diplomacy” and unchallenged crackdown on Shiites
Despite years of Soviet communism dominance over the Muslim people of Azerbaijan in the years before the fall of the Soviet Union and then more than three decades of secular rule and anti-Shiite policies of the Aliyev family, the people of Azerbaijan have shown that they have preserved their Islamic and Shiite identity. The mobilization of internal and external conspiracies to undermine this part of the historical identity of the Azerbaijanis have gone nowhere so far.
Like in Bahrain, although the Shiites are a majority in Azerbaijan and have a historical disposition to relations with the neighboring Iran as a Shiite country, a severe concern of the Western camp led by the US about expansion of the geopolitical sphere of the Iran-led Axis of Resistance allowed Baku leaders to clamp down on the Shiites unquestioned and unchallenged. Many analysts agree that the actions on the Shiite and other religious leaders in the country are apparently ordered.
The arrest of Ayatollah Aliyev, for example, came on the heels of his strong stance against Tel Aviv and Washington after assassination in Baghdad of Iran’s top anti-terror commander General Qassem Soleimani along with Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. He was also one of those who bravely protested the anti-Palestinian initiative of Trump’s “deal of the century” which sought to drop the right for the Palestinian refugees to return home and recognize the illegal Israeli sentiments in West Bank. Ayatollah Aliyev recognized the initiative as “against the Muslim interests.”
Nardaran, a town near the capital and the main Shiite bastion of the Islamic Party has been faceing constant and systematic discrimination and occasional attacks by government security forces in a blatant human rights violation that is totally ignored by the Western governments that always claim they advocate freedom and democracy.
Going tough on Shiites and embracing Salafism
Despite false political and media claims about the government's tendency to confront religious extremism as the main source of opposing the Shiite parties and movements in Azerbaijan, the fact is that the suppression of Shiite political factions is primarily due to the governing body's fear of widespread political legitimacy and potentials of these factions to attract people due to their democratic, Islamic, pro-justice, and anti-arrogance goals and slogans, largely inspired by the Islamic Revolution of Iran that in 1979 said no to dependence to the West and embraced independence.
The powerful and independent religious parties and movements like Islamic Party in Azerbaijan argue that the government actually exaggerates about terrorist threats to win the Western backing for its repressive and undemocratic moves.
To justify the suppression of these movements under the pretext of confronting religious extremism, the government has turned a blind eye to the actions of the Persian Gulf Arab states as well as Turkey sowing and promoting Salafist ideology in the Caucasus region and specifically Azerbaijan and even established friendly ties with takfiri militias.
In the early 1990s, the government was weak and some extremist groups were active in the country. Salafism is a new phenomenon to Azerbaijan’s religious life. The Salafis first emerged in Azerbaijan in the mid-1990s, strengthening their base in the former Soviet republic with the financial and ideological support of the Persian Gulf Arab monarchies and activities of predominantly Chechen missionaries.
While Shiite religious ceremonies, such as Ashura, or travel to Iran and Iraq for special Shiite religious commemorations face government restrictions, Salafis openly engage in propagandistic activities against Shiite beliefs and sow divisions. The Salafis in Azerbaijan are led by Suleymanov, who is preacher of Abu Bakr Mosque in the capital Baku. He was born in Baku in the 1970s. After serving in the Azerbaijani army, he left for Sudan in 1991 and studied at Khartoum University for two years. Suleymanov studied at the Islamic University of Madinah from 1993 to 1998. After returning to Azerbaijan, he became the preacher of the Abu Bakr Mosque in Baku, which was rebuilt in 1997 by the Azerbaijani branch of the Kuwait-founded Society of the Revival of Islamic Heritage.
The Salafis first propagated against the tradition of seeking blessing from the holy sites like the shrines of the Shiite Imams, who were the rightful successors or the Prophet Muhammad. They accused the Shiites of creating “Bid’ah” or heresy and called for “purifying” Islam in Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, the critics of President Ilham Aliyev warn that his alliance with advocates of the Salafism like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar could shatter the national unity at the end of the road.
In addition to substantial home damages, history has shown that adopting a confrontational strategy to the Shiite beliefs in Azerbaijan has been a failed approach. The failure of long years of communist rule and massacring hundreds of Shiite clerics and people and decades of secular education bear witness to this bet.