RELIGION IN INDEPENDENT AZERBAIJAN
Rafik Aliev, D.Sc. (Philos.), professor, Chairman, State Committee of Azerbaijan for Religious Organizations
Azerbaijan is a modern secular state with a Constitution, the law on the freedom of confession (and amendments and additions to it) and the presidential decree On the Legal Status of Foreigners and Stateless Persons that determine, in particular, the place of religion and the religious structures.
Art 7 of the Constitution says: “The Azerbaijani state is a democratic, secular and Unitarian republic ruled by law.” Art 18 stresses: “In the Republic of Azerbaijan religion is separated from the state. All faiths are equal before the law. No one can disseminate and promote religions that degrade human dignity and contradict the principles of humanity. The state system of education is secular.” Art 48 guarantees freedom of conscience: “Each person has the right to freely determine his attitude to religion and, independently or together with others, profess any religion or profess no religion, express and disseminate his convictions about religions.”
Here I shall try to identify the place religion holds in Azerbaijani society: the relations between the state and religion that have taken shape during the years of independence are much more complicated than a mere separation of one from the other.
The religious situation in Azerbaijan has changed considerably within a relatively short stretch of time. During Soviet times the people were slow to abandon their religious convictions despite the pressure of atheist propaganda. During the years of independence they show much more willingness to re-embrace their beliefs. Much more people take part in religious festivals and perform pilgrimages to holy places. New mosques and prayer houses are built, old ones are repaired and restored. Many religious organizations publish periodicals, holy texts, calendars, and works by prominent theologians, and make cultic objects. In Baku no heads are turned to have another look at a young man with a long black beard and moustache, a student in a yashmak, a rabbi with side curls wearing a black hat and lapserdak or a young Christian priest. Nearly every day the independent media create another sensation by reporting that a religious organization could not get an official registration or that several scores of Azerbaijanis were duped or bought to adopt Christianity.
Domestic and foreign factors are increasing the role of religion; this is true of all confessions. It should be said that Christian sects are especially active: the Evangelic Christians, Baptists, Adventists, The Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Pentecostalists. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency and the Seventh-day Adventist World Church are demonstrating a lot of activeness. Jan Paulsen, President of the Seventh-day Adventist World Church General Conference believes that the Christian organizations should concentrate on the non-Christian countries in Asia and Africa: they are homes to about 60 percent of the planet’s population while only 1 percent of them are Christians.1 Our republic is one of the most important targets in Asia.
According to unofficial figures about 5 thousand Azerbaijanis adopted Christianity in recent years. There are people in the republic who change their faith in a hope to improve their material situation, which is skillfully exploited by Christian missionaries working with refugees from Nagorny Karabakh and adjacent regions. There are about one million such refugees in Azerbaijan. Christian sects have stepped up their activity in the districts of Shemakha, Ali-Bairamly and elsewhere. Not infrequently Christian preachers are openly anti-Islamic, they counterpose Islam to Christianity. There are attempts to tie together Islam and the events of 11 September, 2001 in the United States. Christianity is presented as a peaceful and charitable religion while Islam is described as a belligerent faith. Much attention is paid to training local Christian clergy. The missionary organizations look at any interference of the state as an unconstitutional attempt to limit their religious activity.
There are other communities of untraditional faiths: the Bahai organization resumed its activities in Baku cut short by the 1937 repressions. Young people educated in the Russian language are especially interested in Bahaism and Krishnaism.
Alexei Malashenko was quite right when he wrote about the ideological situation on the post-Soviet expanse: “The value paradigm created under Soviet power either remains alive or having changed the signs turned into its opposite. In both cases religion is still mainly a decorative element… Probably, it has not yet gained a place worthy of it on the mass consciousness level. Still, there are enough reasons to say that it will progress steadily toward such place in people’s minds.”2
Religion is gaining a place worthy of it in Azerbaijan in the same way as this is happening in Russia and former Central Asian Soviet republics. It is a complex process full of contradictions. It started when people abandoned their indifference to religion: today it is regarded as a source of ethical norms, morals, moral ideals, and an inalienable element of ethnic culture. Religious consciousness is also changing: religious dogmas are gaining more comprehension, believers are learning more about their religion and this knowledge is qualitatively different from that in the past. In Soviet times people paid little attention to dogmatic distinctions—today not only theoreticians but also common members of religious communities can substantiate the major point of their religion.
It was back in 1991, when Azerbaijan, still a Soviet republic, became the 46th member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. In our republic Islam is gaining wider grounds because it is an open state developing political, economic, and cultural ties with the leading Muslim countries among which are Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Today, an absolute majority (about 90 percent) of the population describe themselves as Muslims. There are two Islamic schools in the Azerbaijan: over half of its population is Shi‘a Jafarites, there are also Sunni Shafi’ites and Hanafites. Recently both Shi‘a and Sunnis have been exhibiting an interest in Wahhabism and Nurjism, two Islamic trends with no roots in Azerbaijan.
One should bear in mind that the religious and ethnic traditions (that are complex autonomous phenomena stemming from different sources and appealing to different sectors of public consciousness and social psychology) inevitably meet. More often than not the public looks at two different intellectual-spiritual and political-ideological complexes as two identical elements. During the years of independence and under the impact of cultural continuity the Islamic values (as well as ethnic and general human ones) became part of national ideology. They found their reflections in the green strip representing Islam on the country’s three-color banner. The official ceremonies are not linked with Islam yet the newly elected president takes his oath on the Constitution and the Koran. The newly conscripted soldiers also swear an oath on the Koran.
The state introduced official festive days on the dates of the main Muslim festivals: Kurban-bairam and Uraza-bairam.
Religious education has reached considerable dimensions—this is especially true of primary and higher education. The first madrasah was opened in 1988 at the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Southern Caucasus; in 1991 it was turned into the Baku Islamic Institute and later, into the Islamic University with a four-year course. It has branches in Sumgait, Mingechaur, and Zakataly. In 1992 a Department of Theology with a mosque of its own was opened at the Baku State University; the University of the Hazaras and the Caucasian University also have departments of theology.
Normally, the departments’ graduates are not offered jobs: today, the share of jobless among them is high while suitable jobs are rare. The fact that many of them graduated from the Islamic institutes of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Pakistan makes the problem of employment more difficult. It is the Ministry of Education and political parties and movements that sent young men to study abroad. As a rule they come back and preach Islam as they were taught abroad.
There are private religious schools that are not registered and have no curricula. Their teachers are mainly foreigners and stateless persons. There are also so-called Koranic courses where children are taught the Koran and fundamentals of the Shari‘a. Quite often, the children are separated from their families and are supported by charities. There are many examples when charities were used to lure people to religious communities. In fact, these educational establishments that have no state control over them and have not been officially registered can educate children as they see it fit.
Islam Is Becoming a Political Factor
The story about Islam’s politization began in October 1991 when the Azerbaijani Islamic Party of Progress encouraged by the republican leadership came to the political scene after its constituent congress that had taken place on 29 October, 1991. The conference adopted the party’s charter. Very soon a new sociopolitical organization of the Muslims of the republic was set up—the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan. Neither the charter nor the program could be distinguished from similar documents of the secular political parties—with the exception of the party’s firm resolution to restore in people’s minds the status of the Koran, the mosques, and the holy places (that Soviet power had taken away), and make true Islam the way of life of the Azerbaijani nation.3
Until the mid-1993 the party used lack of order in the republic to set up its grass-root organizations. Under the wings of its patrons abroad its leaders strove to exploit the ideological weapons provided by Islam for political purposes. It declared that the official clergy represented by the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Southern Caucasus were working illegally because the religion was separated from the state. Later the party announced that it was the only political organization that followed the letter and spirit of the Shari‘a. The truth is different: it uses Islamic slogans to call mass rallies and destabilize the situation in the country. Confessional affiliation was turned into a political instrument and a casus belli. On many occasions the leaders were brought to court on charges of subversive activities and jailed, yet they are insisting on their policy that has nothing to do either with the national development tasks or with the elevated ideas of Islam.
Recently, the republic became aware of Islamic extremist organizations: Jeyshullah (The Army of Allah), Hizbullah (The Party of Allah), and others. They staged several noisy actions in Baku and are responsible for the murder of Academician Zia Buniatov, prominent public figure, Vice President of the Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan, and one of the translators of the Koran into the Azerbaijanian language.
Islamic Fundamentalists Or Islamic Radicals?
It was in 1988 that Bernard Lewis opposed in resolute terms the use of the word “fundamentalists” as applied to the militant Islamic movements. His arguments were weighty and convincing when he wrote that the European languages had borrowed this term from the English. Later, by the irony of fate, it was translated into Arabic and used by Muslim laity to describe their zealous co-religionists. Despite its common use, the term is inaccurate and misleading. “Fundamentalist” is a term originating in the United States in the early twentieth century, and used to refer to certain Protestant groups that objected to the growing influence of liberal theology.4
This is true. Back in 1895 at the Biblical Conference in Niagara Falls a group of ultra-conservative orthodoxes formulated five fundamental (hence fundamentalism) doctrines: The inerrancy of Scripture; The deity and the virgin birth of Jesus Christ; Substitutionary atonement (i.e., Christ died for our sins); The bodily resurrection of Jesus; The personal return of Christ. Those who refused to accept the five doctrines literally were considered heretics.5
The term “fundamentalism” was born in America. Is there any connection between fundamentalism American style and Islamic fundamentalism? To my mind the only thing they have in common is accusations of heresy hurled at those who refuse to share their ideas. In Egypt the fundamentalist organization at-Taqfir wal-hijjra (accusation of lack of faith and removal from the world) accuses of lack of faith all those who, in its opinion, do not follow the Islamic rules. All of them, even Muslims, deserve death say the fundamentalists; they should not be visited if they are ill and their burials should be neglected.
Who are the so-called “Islamic fundamentalists”?
Islam appeared as a religion of opposition. In pre-Islamic Arabia there were scores of religions, both polytheistic (fire or idol worshipping, Sabeism, etc.) and monotheistic (Judaism and Christianity). Islam wanted to differ from all of them—it rejected polytheism and subjected Judaism to scything criticism for violating the Testament, and Christianity, for worshipping man or for presenting God as man. Islam has retained its oppositional nature—it can be channeled against everything that contradicts the “true” Islamic rules. It is for the “Islamic fundamentalists” to decide what is true and what is not because Islam has no institution similar to the Church. Three of the righteous caliphs (Umar bin al-Hattab, Uthman bin Affan and Ali bin Abu Talib) were murdered by Islamic opposition convinced that those who did not rule Muslims according to the true Islamic rules deserved death.
Today, Islam can turn against the West, the U.S. or any other country but this should not be interpreted as a threat to the West, its culture and the Christian world as a whole. Islam rejects the European style and the way of life together with many aspects of European culture, yet not European culture as a whole. In the Middle Ages ulema actively translated European books into Arabic. People in Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the Arab countries can read works by prominent European thinkers in their native tongues.
In Azerbaijan Islam is present in its traditional and radical forms. The latter has taken the form of Khomeinism and Wahhabism: Khomeinism took its final shape while Wahhabism was just developing.
Traditional Islam represented by the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of the Caucasus prefers to adjust itself to the state and its ideology, and to cooperate with secular power. The radicals call on the people to restore the “original purity” of Islam of the period of the Prophet Muhammad and the righteous caliphs and to strictly obey the moral and ethical principles of that period. The radicals stress that in Islam the religious and the secular, religion and the state are inseparable, and insist on moral conduct preached by Islam. To assert themselves the radical Muslims are actively involved in politics, support certain political movements, set up political parties of their own, call mass rallies and organize hunger strikes, and encourage sects and separatist trends in religions.
While traditional Islam believes it its duty to serve the state, radical Islam tries to strike root in the deepest layers of society’s religious and secular life. It cannot reconcile itself with a decorative role that the secular state offers. It is out to be heard and to be able to have a say on the most burning social issues.
Within the Islamic world the supporters of traditional Islam limit their contacts by the official protocol, meetings, scientific conferences, and forums while those who side with radical Islam are extensively supported materially and spiritually by people who share their ideas.
The balance of forces between the two wings is changing in favor of the radicals. The state prefers traditional Islam that is serving it—radical Islam, on the other hand, is pursuing its own far-reaching political aims.
In Azerbaijan the state guarantees freedom of confession and has the right to limit it for considerations of state and social security. Under its international obligations it guarantees protection of the rights and freedoms. This can be interpreted as the state’s obligation to regulate certain aspects of the activity of religious organizations within wide limits.
Such regulation stems from respectful, rather than equal, treatment of all religions. Freedom of confession is an absolute priority: the state should provide each of its citizens with the right to independently identify his/her attitude to religion and to profess (individually or in a group) any religion, to express and disseminate his/her convictions related to his/her attitude to religion.
1 See: Adventistskiy vestnik, No. 2, 2001.
2 A. Malashenko, Islamskoe vozrozhdenie v sovremennoi Rossii, Moscow Carnegie Center, Moscow, 1998, p. 71.
3 See: Islam (Baku), 7 November, 1991; 23 January, 1992.
4 See: B. Lewis, “Islamskaia revolutsia,” in: Sredniy Vostok: zarevo islamskogo fundamentalizma, Leningrad, 1990, p. 15.
5 See: N. Iakovlev, Religia v Amerike 80-kh, Moscow, 1987, p. 43.