The recent arrest of the leader of the outlawed Islamic Party of Azerbaijan is raising questions about the future role of Islam in Azerbaijani politics. Analysts in Baku differ on how much influence the Islamic Party has, but many share the belief that Islam could form the basis for a new generation of opposition activists.
Islamic Party of Azerbaijan Chairperson Movsum Samadov was arrested on January 7 after a video of a speech he had made denouncing President Ilham Aliyev was posted on the video-sharing website YouTube.
IPA spokesperson Akif Heydarly told EurasiaNet.org that party leaders do not know where Samadov is being held; the other three detainees were sentenced on January 7 to up to 15 days in jail for resisting police. Heydarly alleged that the arrests were made “for political reasons” following Samadov’s call for a change in government.
Accusing President Aliyev of destroying mosques, many of which have been closed in the recent months, trying to ban azan (the Muslim call to prayer), and harassing women who wear a hijab (traditional Islamic head coverings), Samadov also compared Aliyev to Yazid ibn Muawiya, a 7th century caliph vilified by Shi’a Muslims. The vast majority of Azeri Muslims are Shi’as.
“Like Yazid [and his father], Ilham Aliyev creates a personality cult around his father, Heydar Aliyev, in Azerbaijan,” Samadov claimed in the video.
As Islamic Party supporters chanted “Allahu Akbar” in the background, Samadov urged Azerbaijanis “to rise up and put an end to this despotic regime.” Quoting the Prophet Muhammad that “for the sake of religion’s salvation, lives should be given,” the party leader asserted that Azerbaijan “will face even bigger tragedies so long as the government is fully under the control of the Zionists.”
The Interior Ministry claims that Samadov was actively planning to put his espoused beliefs into action. Police charge that they found “three combat grenades” in a shop owned by the IPA leader’s father, and “seven gun cartridges” in a cousin’s apartment. Samadov has been charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism and planning “public disorder.”
The Islamic Party lost its official registration in 1995 after the arrest of party leaders on charges of spying for Iran and conspiring to carry out a coup. Aside from speaking out against Israel, the group has largely kept silent over the past several years. Drawing its Shi’a Muslim membership mostly from Baku’s conservative Nardaran suburb and outlying villages, the party is routinely described as “pro-Iranian” by Azerbaijani media.
The Islamic Party, with an alleged national membership of over 40,000, has always been in opposition to the government. However, the Samadov video was the first time in recent memory that a party leader has called publicly to “put an end” to the Aliyev administration.
Government officials have not commented on the arrests; the pro-government Religious Council of the Caucasus, chaired by Azerbaijan’s senior cleric, Allahshukur Pashazade, has condemned Samadov’s appeal to supporters as “a provocation.”
Outsiders, mindful of Iranian criticism of the hijab restrictions, may look to Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran, for encouraging that appeal. But while Tehran supports the IPA, two local analysts rejected the notion that it is working to stir up trouble for the Azerbaijani government.
“Iran needs cooperation with the Azerbaijani government and will not damage relations [with it],” Hikmet Hajizade, president of FAR-Center, a non-governmental research organization that has studied Islam-related topics. “I expect protests and criticism by some representatives of the Iranian clergy, but nothing more.”
Arif Yunusov, author of “Political Islam in Azerbaijan,” also believes that “domestic factors” alone sparked the latest tug-of-war between Islamic activists and the government. “At the end of the day, it is not Iran which bans hijab and destroys mosques in Azerbaijan,” Yunusov noted.
With Azerbaijan’s secular opposition now in disarray, Islam appears to be gaining ground as a rallying point for critics of the government, both analysts believe.
“[U]nder Ilham Aliyev’s rule, the traditional opposition has been suppressed and turned into a marginal group of dissidents, but the Islamists have moved ahead,” said Yunusov.
With the number of new mosques up a hundred-fold in the past 20 years, this trend could continue, he believes. “The new generation of young Azerbaijanis is more interested in religion than the older generation, which grew up under the USSR,” Yunusov elaborated. Actions that appear to contradict that interest – the restrictions on hijab, most recently – “only radicalize believers.”
Hajizade, though, contends that the Islamic Party is too weak to mount serious opposition. The party’s actual membership probably does not surpass 2,000 to 2,500 people, he estimates. Moreover, IPA slogans that denounce Israel and alleged “Zionists” in the government sound “irrational” and are “not popular among the wider public in Azerbaijan,” he said.
Yunusov added that divisions among sects and the lack of “a charismatic leadership” mean that Islamic activists are not likely to take on a more prominent role in Azerbaijani politics in the immediate future. “So far, the government is able to keep Islamic activists under control,” agreed Hajizade. “Unlike the traditional opposition, the West will not actively defend Islamists.”
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Foundation - Azerbaijan.