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Azerbaijan: Islam Comes with a Secular Face

While Azerbaijanis increasingly identify Islam as important to their lives, very few admit to attending religious services. (Photo: Rena Effendi)

While there are numerous touchstones of tension in Azerbaijan, including corruption and income inequality, local analysts say it’s unlikely that religion will emerge as a major fault line in Azerbaijani society for the foreseeable future.

“This is the most secular Muslim country in the world,” commented Altay Goyuhsov, a professor of Islamic History at Baku State University. “Among Muslim nations, Azerbaijanis are the ones who take religious ceremonies and fasting the least seriously. Men with long beards, and covered women are still unusual in Azerbaijan.”

That attitude stems largely from Azerbaijan’s own history. Traditionally a predominantly Shi’a Muslim country, Azerbaijan spent 71 years as an officially atheist Soviet republic. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Azerbaijanis, like citizens of other formerly Soviet republics, began looking for an alternative ideology and turned to religion, said Elchin Askerov, a former deputy chairperson of the State Committee for Work with Religions Organizations. But in Azerbaijan’s case, the popular embrace of Islam did not diminish secular traditions.

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Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist focusing on Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan: Islam Comes with a Secular Face

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