The recent murder of Rafiq Tagi, a staunchly secularist journalist in Azerbaijan who was killed by suspected pro-Iranian extremists, has exposed dangerous fault lines in Azerbaijani society.
Tagi died from stab wounds suffered during a mid-November attack in downtown Baku. No one has been apprehended in connection with the killing. Since then, attention has mainly focused on discussion, or the lack thereof, about the role of Islam in Azerbaijani society.
Less examined, but very important, is the government’s attitude toward a secularist political model. Officials in Baku have long taken pride in Azerbaijan’s image as a pillar of secularism in the Muslim world. A troubling aspect of the Tagi tragedy, then, is that officials have never condemned the murder. Instead of taking a loud, public position, President Ilham Aliyev’s administration dispatched Ali Hasanov, a top presidential aide, to Iran where reportedly he expressed Baku's displeasure about alleged Iranian support for radical Islamists in Azerbaijan.
While private complaints directed at Tehran may certainly be warranted, public silence sends the wrong signal to domestic supporters of a secularist Azerbaijani identity. It likewise serves to encourage religious extremists.
One wonders if Tagi might still be alive today if the Azerbaijani government had publicly and strongly denounced the fatwa issued by a powerful Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani, who called for Tagi’s death because he wrote an article deemed "insulting to Islam." Azerbaijani authorities also did not bother to investigate numerous death threats that Tagi received in Azerbaijan. Instead, officials incarcerated him for allegedly inciting religious hatred.
Authorities appeared willing to placate religious extremists as long as they targeted ordinary secularists, not the ruling elite. This, however, may have created an appearance of divisions within the secularist camp that encouraged extremists to take action.
By stifling free debate on religion, and by not taking sides in any debate, the government has effectively tied the hands of advocates of a secular society. Full-fledged civic discourse might expose some of the inconsistencies found in Islamists’ arguments, as well as highlight a mood of intolerance among Azeri Islamists. Of late, radical strands of Islam, even if not violent, have been allowed to spread mostly unchallenged on the intellectual level.
As is the case with government officials, some prominent Islamists in Azerbaijan, including Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, the head of the DEVAMM, a religious rights non-governmental organization, have declined to condemn Tagi’s murder, or the fatwa that likely contributed to it. Ibrahimoglu’s stance on Tagi’s death is noteworthy, given his own very public struggles with the government concerning freedom of speech and religious liberty.
A government that encouraged, rather than discouraged public discussion of religious issues could help foster greater clarity concerning the agenda of Ibrahimoglu, as well as other Muslim leaders: are they genuinely committed to defending the concept of religious freedom -- even for those whose views on religion they disagree with?; or, confirming the suspicions of many, does a hardcore Islamist political agenda hide behind the facade of their human rights rhetoric?
Azerbaijan's democratic opposition also must grapple with a stark choice: does it take as principled a stand against the Islamist threat to the freedom of speech, as it does against the government's effort to restrict public discourse? Or does it pander to the feelings of Azerbaijan's growing number of observant Muslims, many of whom seem to believe that Rafig Tagi provoked his own murder by "insulting" the faith of the majority of Azerbaijanis?
The early signs are not very encouraging. Some opposition politicians, such as Ilgar Mammadov of the Republican Alternative (REAL) party, have been outspoken in condemning both the murder of Tagi and the reaction of the religious conservatives to it. Yet many secular democrats were shocked by the failure, apparently under Islamist pressure, of the Public Chamber, an umbrella opposition organization, to honor Tagi´s memory with a minute of silence. Ali Novruzov, a prominent liberal blogger, called those opposition and civil society leaders who refused to confront Islamists over Tagi's murder “useful idiots.”
Finally, religious moderates must wrestle with an unpleasant dilemma; do they stand up in support of religious freedom within a secular system, in other words back the separation of mosque and state?; or do they stand aside as faith strives to take precedence over reason? Distressingly, 'modern, moderate' believers so far seem unwilling to give their full backing to mosque-state separation. Overlooking existing evidence, the moderate consensus tries to deny reality by arguing that Ayatollah Lankarani´s death fatwa had nothing to do with Islam. Even worse, many moderates have displayed an alarming lack of tolerance for alternative views, trying to silence the critics of Islam in social media and online discussion forums. These efforts are in perfect harmony with the aims of radical Islamists, who have long wanted to impose their concept of religious orthodoxy on society.
Tagi’s murder serves as a tragic reminder that secularism cannot be taken for granted in Azerbaijan. It also suggests a more determined approach is needed to protect the country’s secularist orientation. Without secularism, the future of freedom in Azerbaijan would be even bleaker than it is at present.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament, who writes in his personal capacity.
Eldar Mamedov is a Brussels-based foreign policy expert