Public reaction to the recent deaths – on the same day – of two very different Azerbaijani figures associated with Islam has highlighted the political-religious divide in this staunchly secular but overwhelmingly Muslim country.
On March 2, leading Azerbaijani theologian and Shia cleric Haji Shahin Hasanli died of a heart attack at his Baku home, aged 48. Hasanli was one of the most prominent religious figures in Azerbaijan. He had been an imam at a Baku mosque and an authorized representative of the Caucasus Muslims Board.
Like just about anyone in Azerbaijan with a position of significant influence, he supported the government of President Ilham Aliyev. During the 2020 Second Karabakh War with Armenia, he motivated soldiers and consoled the families of slain servicemen. In an interview after the war, he praised the president for appearing at a mosque "which he freed from occupation as a winning warrior and showed special respect to God and our religion."
And he was critical of Iran, whose Shia theocratic leaders continue to have tense relations with Aliyev's secular regime and which has been accused of supporting would-be violent Islamist oppositionists, particularly in the occasionally restive Baku suburb of Nardaran.
Hasanli's successful navigation of religion and politics made him a popular, and unifying, figure. So his sudden death at a young age saddened Azerbaijanis across the political spectrum. The funeral was attended by figures from both the ruling party and the opposition.
Across town the very same day, an imprisoned Islamist activist, Sabuhi Salimov, died in a courtroom, also of a heart attack, following a long hunger strike protesting his detention.
Salimov, a member of the Azerbaijan Islam Party, had been arrested in October 2021 by Azerbaijan's State Security Service on suspicion of cooperating with Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. His arrest came after he had publicly burnt the flag of Israel – Azerbaijan's close ally and Iran's archrival – and allegedly sent footage of the burning to Iran.
He was convicted of treason and sentenced by the Baku Grave Crimes Court to 17 years in prison last November.
The Muslim Unity Movement (MUM), a leading Azerbaijani religious opposition group, reported that Salimov had been on hunger strike for 53 consecutive days, refusing water for the last week of it, but resumed eating on March 1. A day later, the Baku Appeal Court denied his motion for release. "Sabuhi shouted, protested and called the decision a political order. At that moment, he suffered a heart attack and died in the courtroom behind bars [in the dock]," MUM told local news agency Turan. (MUM reported on Facebook that so far in March alone 23 members have been arrested.)
Religious vs secular divide in Azerbaijan's opposition
Many in Azerbaijan, including the non-Islamist segment of the activist community, became aware of Salimov's hunger strike only after he died.
His funeral received scant media attention, particularly relative to Hasanli's, and some observers noted the disparity.
"This shows the situation around the religious figures in Azerbaijan. If you don't promote the interests of the state, if you don't repeat what the state says, you can't practice your faith as you want," writer and blogger Samad Shikhi wrote on Facebook. "Because of the fact that Haji Sahin was doing exactly that, the state did not hinder his popularity. On the contrary, it supported him. Sabuhi Salimov was arrested for 'treason' because he raised his voice against the injustices of the state, defended his faith, and protested."
Azerbaijan's constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state and its post-Soviet regime has been vividly secular – particularly in contrast to neighboring Iran. But that hasn't stopped officials, including the president, from occasionally playing on religious sensitivities for political ends.
Following the victory in the Karabakh war, President Aliyev made multiple appearances in mosques in retaken territories and announced, for Muslim audiences at home and abroad, that pigs had been kept inside mosques during the nearly three decades of (Christian) Armenian occupation – a deep insult to Islam.
"For some time the authoritarian Azerbaijani regime – which by nature does not tolerate independent activity and aims to control and steer every kind of public conversation in the country – has been pursuing a policy to seize dominance in Islamic discourse from informal activists," historian Altay Goyushov wrote for the Baku Research Institute in 2021. "The war provided a chance to weigh in more heavily in this discourse and capture dominance in religious rhetoric from informal Islamists."
In this context, Hasanli's activities were widely viewed as part of the government's attempt to build its own religious discourse.
Hasanli was "an important public figure who played a role in the Azerbaijani state's construction of traditional Islam," Najmin Kamilsoy, political analyst and co-founder of the Baku-based think tank Agora Analytical Collective, told Eurasianet.
"As an Islamic scholar, this allowed him to communicate with and gain respect from all sections of society. As for Sabuhi Salimov, he was classified as a 'radical Islamist' by the authorities,” he said. “There is no place for this kind of Islam in the political scene of Azerbaijan."
"Hasanli and Salimov were on two opposite sides of the Azerbaijani government's policy concerning increased religiosity, and in this regard, public support for them could not be at the same level."
Kamilsoy also noted that Azerbaijan's religious opposition in the last decade has focused largely on matters of concern for the devout and have not sought to broaden their support base. "Socioeconomic problems, which are the main concerns of the population, have not been kept on the agenda by religious political groups," he said. "Religious populism has never set foot in Azerbaijan."