Amid a struggle to determine religion’s role in Azerbaijan, a controversial movement led by Turkish theologian Fetullah Gulen is attempting to establish itself as the face of moderate, politically acceptable Islam in Baku. There are several factors, however, that are limiting the Gulen movement’s ability to achieve its goal.
The Gulen movement, which is also known as Nurcular in Azerbaijan, is most widely known in the Caspian Basin state for its educational programs. When it began operating in Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, the movement received a warm welcome from the officials, who at that time preferred to emphasize ethnic politics grounded in common Turkic cultural connections above the dawaa, or Islamic missionary activities.
Azerbaijan’s late president Heydar Aliyev saw the cultural component as a useful contribution to Azeri nation-building, and a way of cementing the Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance. It helped that, back then, secular and Islamic actors in Turkey, whatever their domestic disagreements, cooperated in promoting closer ties between Ankara and the newly independent state of Azerbaijan, as well as those in Central Asia. To better understand this trend, it is beneficial to read Between the State and Islam, a work by Berna Turam, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston.
These days attitudes in Baku have changed. The administration of the incumbent president, Ilham Aliyev, the son of the former president Heydar, is much more circumspect when it comes to the Gulen movement.
One explanation for the shift is connected to political developments in Turkey. Aliyev’s secular administration felt much more comfortable dealing with Kemalist Turkish leaders who governed prior to the rise in 2002 of the religiously conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP is reputed to have strong ties to the Gulen movement, and this makes officials in Baku nervous. The secular model in Turkey, a model that kept religion out of politics, has weakened during the AKP’s almost decade in power. Aliyev, accordingly, may be wondering how strongly Ankara will continue to support Azerbaijan’s own, secular political model.
In Baku, meanwhile, the government’s tolerance of different political points of view has steadily diminished. This has translated into a more restrictive attitude toward any kind of foreign religious influence.
In spite of the current trends, it is unlikely that Azerbaijani authorities intend to crack down on the Gulen movement, however. For one, given the movement’s rising influence in Turkey, a crackdown would endanger Baku´s strategic alliance with Ankara. Another reason is that the movement runs a highly successful network of schools, and the offspring of many influential Azerbaijani officials, including Ramiz Mehdiyev, the head of the presidential administration, are said to be attending these schools. Still another reason is the alleged business ties between Azerbaijani officials and Gulen-linked enterprises, although this, in the absence of free media in Azerbaijan, is hard, if impossible to ascertain.
Secularists and civil society advocates are divided in their attitude to the movement. Some, like Arif Yunus, believe that with its strong emphasis on modern education and inter-faith dialogue, the Gulenists should be supported as a counterbalance to more conservative and radical strands of Islam.
Others believe this aim is overly optimistic. While the movement’s public face is consistently tolerant and pluralistic, behind the scenes it seems less tolerant. For example, in dormitories operated by Gulen schools, and in Gulen businesses, there is strict gender segregation, and the subordination of women prevails. In its boarding schools efforts to educate youth in a rigidly pious Muslim way eclipses the concept of individual liberty and free choice of lifestyles. As reported by WikiLeaks, at least one case is known when an Azeri student left a Gulenist dormitory in Baku, because of the movement´s opposition to his choice of marriage partner.
Many Azerbaijani liberals also fret about what they see as the Gulen movement’s hypocrisy and opportunism: amid an Azerbaijani government clampdown on the freedom of expression and assembly in 2011, the Gulen movement´s flagship newspaper, Zaman, ran a number of stories praising Azerbaijan’s "visionary leadership." This struck civil society activists as incongruous, given the movement’s claims to support democracy in Turkey and elsewhere. In general, the articles were perceived as a cynical Gulen ploy to curry favour with the officials in Baku for the movement's educational and business projects.
Also giving liberals pause in Baku is the fact that the movement is helping to spearhead the controversial Ergenekon and Sledgehammer conspiracy cases in Turkey, which have seen hundreds of people, including journalists critical of the movement, languishing in jails for years, without trial and often on the basis of what appears to be a fabricated evidence.
Back in Baku, the Gulen movement´s relations with other major actors in Azerbaijan’s religious scene are tense. Radical Shiites, inspired by the example of the Islamic Republic of Iran, see the movement as passive and conformist. It is telling, for example, that the protesters against the hijab ban in schools were almost entirely Shiites, while Gulenists adopted a low profile. On the other hand, Salafis frown upon the movement for it enthusiastic embrace of technological and even theological innovations, deemed as forbidden by these Saudi-inspired Islamic puritans.
Last, but not least, the movement´s emphasis on Turkism and Islam alienates from it members of mainly Baku-based, Russian-speaking Azerbaijani intelligentsia, which, despite dwindling numbers, remains an influential opinion leader.
Despite occasional setbacks, the Gulen movement has succeeded in building an effective network comprising former alumni, friendly officials and sympathetic businesses. Its message of relatively moderate Islam and Turkic nationalism resonates with an increasing number of Azeris, particularly young people, who see in it an alternative to both the secularism of the Aliyev´s administration and Iranian-style Islamism. But the pluralistic nature of Azerbaijani society, which includes secular liberals, intelligentsia, Shiites, non-Turkic minorities, and, above all, the strong tradition of indigenous secularism, will put natural limits to the movement’s expansion in Azerbaijan.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament, who writes in his personal capacity.
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