Azerbaijan’s parliament is set to adopt new laws on religion that would give the state broad new powers over Islamic practice in the country.
On February 15, parliament passed on a second reading amendments to the country’s “Law on Freedom of Religious Beliefs.” The new rules appear on track to pass a third reading and then be sent to President Ilham Aliyev for his signature.
One of the key changes would be how the country’s Muslim clerics are appointed. That authority would be given to the State Committee on Religious Associations, and taken from the Caucasus Muslims Board. That body, while in practice under tight control of the state, is nominally independent and dates to 1823, when the Russian Empire was newly asserting its control over the South Caucasus.
The Caucasus Muslims Board now will be able only to certify the state committee’s appointments. The state committee also will take over from the Caucasus Muslims Board the authority to register new religious communities, and will also assume more control over how donations to religious organizations are made.
The amendments were submitted for discussion in January by the parliament’s Committee on Public Associations and Religious Organizations. One of the members of that committee is Javanshir Pashazade, the brother of Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazadeh, who has been head of the Caucasus Muslims Board since 1980.
The amendments quickly passed their first reading and became widely discussed in Azerbaijan; many considered it a violation of provisions in the country’s constitution that stipulate the separation of the state and religion. Others connected it to Pashazadeh himself; the sheikh came under fire last summer after making pro-Iran comments.
But the head of the parliamentary committee framed the new regulations as, improbably, a means of protecting the sheikh. Fazail Ibrahimli told the news agency APA that because Pashazadeh’s office was frequently criticized for the appointment of clerics, this was a way to shield him.
“After being appointed, these people [clerics] came to the sheikh in the guise of angels,” Ibrahimli said. “Now, how can a sheikh know that this person is a chameleon? He can change his color. His attitude toward religion is not religious love, but the attitude of a fisherman toward fish.”
Scandals about clerics thus reflect poorly on the office of the sheikh, Ibrahimli suggested. “The sheikh's life is saved! This was the biggest thing that damaged his image. These changes to the law are like a shield for the sheikh,” he said.
But another lawmaker, Gudrat Hasanguliyev, called the amendments “а violation of the constitution.” Article 18 of Azerbaijan’s constitution says: “Religion is separate from the state in the Republic of Azerbaijan.”
“By making such blatant unconstitutional changes, we are expressing an unconstitutional attitude,” Hasanguliyev said during the February 15 discussion. The parliamentary committee should instead work to improve “religious literacy” in the country, he said.
Another member of the committee, Jeyhun Mammadov, justified the new restrictions by broadly criticizing the country’s clerics. Imams should have “a high reputation, deep knowledge, and a pro-state position,” and so they should be vetted by the government, he told the TV network ARB. “The state's control over religious activities prevents abuses,” he said. “Clerics must be appointed by the state. There is nothing strange here.”
The new regulations address only the country’s Muslim majority; the state committee will not take over the authority to appoint Christian priests or Jewish rabbis. Some saw that as inconsistent and a further violation of the constitution.
“All religious beliefs are equal before the law,” wrote lawyer Javad Javadov on Facebook. “With this logic, to ensure equality appointments in churches and synagogues should be made by the state committee.”
The new regulations will be a continuation of a trend that has been apparent for many years, Kanan Rovshanoglu, an analyst of religious affairs, told Eurasianet.
“Religious activities will be organized directly or indirectly by government agencies. Funding for [Muslim] religious communities, religious propaganda - book printing, programs, etc. - as well as religious education have already been taken away from the Caucasus Muslims Board. Azerbaijan thus appears to be moving towards “the Turkish model” of government influence on religion, he said.
Ulkar Natiqqizi is an Azerbaijani journalist.