Azerbaijan speaks of peace while cracking down on Islam

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

On March 8, 2024, Azerbaijan's capital Baku officially welcomed the guests of the international conference, “Embracing Diversity: Tackling Islamophobia in 2024.” The event was organized by the Centre for Analysis of International Relations and the Baku International Centre for Multiculturalism in partnership with the G20 Interfaith Dialogue Forum and the Baku Initiative Group.

The event took place just days ahead of March 15, the International Day To Combat Islamophobia, as designated by the United Nations in 2022. Although not attending in person, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev did address the guests of the conference in a letter that was read by the Assistant to the President of Azerbaijan and the Head of the Foreign Policy Affairs Department of the Presidential Administration, Hikmet Hajiyev.

In his address, he criticized Western countries where he claimed Islam is viewed as a potential threat, where believers are faced with pressure, have their rights and freedoms restricted, and where hatred against Muslims is widespread, while persecution of Muslims is common. One crucial detail that was not mentioned in the address is his government's consistent crackdown on religion.

Just last month, in February, scores of religious believers were rounded up across the country. According to rights defenders, over 500 believers have been arrested just in the past year and a half.

“The wrong kind of Islam”

In January 2024, the United States named Azerbaijan among the Special Watch List countries “for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom.” The decision was based on a recommendation by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's (USCIRF) annual 2023 report.

And although the ruling Baku lashed back, criticizing the report, the reality on the ground paints a different picture. In addition to ongoing arrests, a series of policies and regulations throughout the last decade have resulted in the curtailment of religious freedoms through the country's law On Freedom of Religious Beliefs (religion law), including banning public prayers outside mosques and closures of places of worship, to name a few.

The state also used the tensions with neighboring Iran to arrest scores of people in February 2023, accusing those arrested of running an Iranian spy network. At the time, some political activists alluded that mass arrests and detentions of believers were not necessarily linked to what the state has described as a “resistance squad aimed at establishing a Shari'a state in Azerbaijan,” but instead an attempt to threaten and send a message to Iran.

Most of these believers were arrested on bogus drug charges, with one family member of the arrested saying, “First of all, if so many citizens of one state are spies of another state, as they say, then this is a shame for that state. Second, how is it possible that so many religious believers became drug addicts and drug dealers? It cannot get more ridiculous than this?!” Although the state claimed the arrested group was running a spy network, none were charged with espionage but rather drug charges.

Drug possession charges are common and often leveled against not only religious believers but government critics, too.

In his address to the event participants, President Aliyev criticized France, where the state “is pursuing a policy of open pressure and discrimination, staging various Islamophobic campaigns.” But Azerbaijan's own policies of pressure and discrimination were not mentioned, only that Azerbaijan “strongly condemn these trends that increasingly aim to tarnish our religion.”

And yet, the country's leadership has long viewed religion and religious groups with caution.

These tensions culminated in 2015 when, following a special security operation in Nardaran, a conservative Shia village on the outskirts of the capital, police arrested fifteen men. Authorities claimed “they averted religious rebellion by fanatic Shia believers, whose goal was to install a sharia state in modern and secular Azerbaijan.” In the coming weeks, as angered residents took their resentments to the public square, the stand-off with the authorities continued. As a result, police arrested at least 70 people, with some estimating the total reached over 80. Eventually, many were released except Taleh Bagirzade, the chair of the Muslim Unity Movement, and fourteen others.

Two years later, Bagirzade was sentenced to twenty years behind bars. His deputy, Abbas Huseynov, received the same sentence. Both were convicted of “publicly calling for the overthrow of the government and of inciting ethnic, religious, and social hatred,” reported Radio Liberty at the time. The convictions continued in the following months, with some receiving jail time ranging from 12–15 years. However, the persecution of religious activists did not stop there. Over the course of the following years, authorities continued to round up members of the Muslim Unity Movement.

In a piece for Eurasianet, Baku-based independent analyst Rovshan Mammadli wrote,

The ruling elite has leveraged the bogeyman of Islamic extremism to cast itself as the guardian of a secular and stable Azerbaijani state to rationalize the adoption of more autocratic policies both domestically and internationally. The government's response [to the attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran] has mirrored the U.S.'s “Global War on Terror” post-9/11 rhetoric, employing it as a political tool to cast perceived threats as justifications for authoritarian practices, with little independent oversight to verify these charges. Essentially, “not a threat for what it is, but a threat for what it represents.

The same logic applies to virtually all other cases in which the government cracked down on civic groups and activists. Last year, the state accused the US and France of operating a spy network in Azerbaijan without any evidence. As such, it was not surprising that President Aliyev picked on France of all countries in his address at the opening of the conference on March 8. The two have been at loggerheads for a while now.

In his closing remarks, President Aliyev's address read, “I am confident that this conference will make a contribution to concerted efforts in combatting Islamophobia and generating fresh initiatives aimed at promoting the culture of tolerance and peace founded on respect for religious and faith diversity.” Whether tolerance and peace can reach the borders of Azerbaijan remains to be seen.

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