Islam Not an Issue in Azerbaijan's Presidential Campaign

Azerbaijan's active Islamic community may have grown since Soviet times, but most presidential candidates in the upcoming October 15 elections are still sidestepping Muslim believers as a target group of voters.

Ninety-six percent of Azerbaijan's population of 8.12 million is Muslim; the bulk of them Shi'a, according to US government statistics. The country's long-standing tradition of secularism, however, still stands strong. Local observers estimate that no more than roughly 10 to 15 percent of Azerbaijani Muslims are practicing believers.

To date, only two candidates out of seven contenders have addressed Islamic voters directly.

In a September 25 statement during Ramadan, incumbent President Ilham Aliyev declared that Azerbaijan "can be considered as an exemplary country" for what he described as its "religious and ethnic tolerance." Affirmed Aliyev: "No ethnic or religious confrontation existed before, should not exist, and I am sure will not exist?"

Only Fazil Gazanfaroglu, chairman of the Great Establishment Party, has advanced specific proposals for improving conditions for believers.

Gazanfaroglu, a member of parliament who hails from the Aliyevs' native exclave of Nakhchivan, calls for lifting the ban on wearing hijab, a covering for Muslim women, at universities, and for creating a standard uniform for Muslim female students, which would be unique to Azerbaijan and "free from ideological elements from Iran, Turkey or Saudi Arabia."

He has also advocated greater official tolerance for public expression of Muslim beliefs.

"It is not right when church bells ring freely, while azan, a call for divine service, is not heard outside mosques as it should be, or to impose a ban on praying outside the mosque and to have police persecute some believers," Gazanfaroglu told EurasiaNet. "This attitude should be changed."

A strategy for votes by a little-known candidate? One religious rights activist doubts it.

"There is no feeling that elections are being held in the country, not even an imitation of elections as used to be the case," said Ilqar Ibrahimoglu, the former imam of Baku's Juma mosque, and a frequent government critic. "? There is no issue about candidates attracting the electorate, including religious communities, since this is all just a performance."

Presidential candidate Gulamhusseyn Alibayli, chairman of the Aydinlar (Intellectuals) Party, largely echoed the view that Islam is not a factor in this year's presidential vote.

Affirming that "equal conditions" have already been established for all religions in Azerbaijan, Alibayli, a former advisor to the late President Abulfaz Elchibey, maintained that restrictions on "free praying" or police forcing Muslim men to shave their beards "should be considered as a human rights violation" alone.

Arif Yunus, author of "Islam in Azerbaijan", however, believes that the "Islamic factor" within Azerbaijani society and the country's political life is growing. Yunus attributes the phenomenon to disillusionment with both democracy and the West.

"There is a struggle between the two ideologies: Heydarism [a reference to the late President Heydar Aliyev, father of current President Ilham Aliyev] as a cult of the personality, which has already created irritation among the population, and Islamism, which is considered as an alternative," he said. "The incumbent government has no policy towards religion. They use the old Soviet policy of repression ?"

Yunus cited as an example the August 17 grenade explosion in a Baku mosque that left two people dead and 13 injured. Several members of an Islamic group known as the Forest Brothers have been detained as suspects.

But religious rights activist Ibrahimoglu disagrees. The incident is but a single instance, he said; an investigation into the explosion is ongoing.

The 2008 International Religious Freedom Report from the US Department of State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor states that religious practice in Azerbaijan is "generally free," however, noted that "burdensome registration requirements and selective harassment marred application of the law."

Mina Muradova is a freelance writer based in Baku.

Islam Not an Issue in Azerbaijan's Presidential Campaign

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