Staunton, October 31 – A useful rule is to dismiss any number ending in ‘0’ that comes from the east because it is almost certainly a figure on which one cannot rely and one that is offered to promote a particular agenda. But a report that there are now “40,000” Azerbaijani Wahhabis is nonetheless sparking concern not only in Azerbaijan but across the region.
On the Haqqin.az portal today, Alkhas Ismaylov says that “according to the latest data,” there are already 40,000 Azerbaijanis who are Islamist radicals of this trend, a development that has become “a constant headache for law enforcement organs and the Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus” and for “the entire population of the country” (haqqin.az/news/32925).
All such numbers are estimates: there is no census or poll on which to base them. But it is clearly the case, Ismaylov says, that the numbers of Azerbaijanis who have become Wahhabis or chosen to follow other radical trends in Islam are on the increase and now strike even the unaided eye as “massive.”
According to him, this has happened because of large-scale funding from abroad “both from the East and from the West.” But he suggests that there are domestic sources as well and urges the traditional Muslim authorities and the Azerbaijani government to address them “with decisive measures” before it is too late.
What has prompted these concerns and this article are news stories that “ever more Azerbaijan citizens have entered the ranks of the militants of the Islamic State” and that more Azerbaijanis both in Azerbaijan and in the diaspora in the Russian Federation are being recruited for service there.
The question now is how to respond. “Both the expert community and government investigatory organs well understand,” Ismaylov says, “that neither appeals nor exhortations nor force methods will solve the problem of the spread of Wahhabism either in Azerbaijan or in the world as a whole.”
Throwing those with beards into prison won’t work either, he continues. Instead, what is needed are “complex measures” to transform the situation lest “the radicalization of society, including the strengthening of religious extremism, continues to advance by seven league bounds forward.” If such measures are not adopted, the authorities will soon face “a real threat.”
Faced with reports that from 100 to 300 Azerbaijanis are fighting with the forces of the Islamic State in Syria and that dozens of them have died, Allakhshukyur Pasha-zade, the sheikh ul-Islam and head of the Administration of the Muslims of the Caucasus, has urged Azerbaijanis not to be fooled and to recognize that the Islamic State threatens Islam and Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations says that it is tracking the citizens of Azerbaijan who have participated in such actions abroad and taken “the necessary legal measures” against them. But Ismaylov says, “it is not entirely clear how effective such measures have been.”
Rafik Aliyev, the former head of that committee, told Haqqin.az that he was concerned that the current situation may be getting out of hand. According to him, “Azerbaijan has been converted into a transit point for the dissemination of Wahhabism and other radical trends between the North Caucasus and the Arab world.”
And he pointed to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrein as among the “’sponsors’” of this development, one that involves both the dispatch of missionaries to Azerbaijan and the recruitment of Azerbaijani students who return from abroad with views on life and religion that do not correspond to traditional understandings.
“Such a network of agents of influence, plus unlimited financial investments,” Aliyev said, “has promoted the spread in Azerbaijan of radical Islamist trends.” And he pointed to a new tactic such groups are using: they are establishing nominally non-religious businesses to help fund radicals, something that he urged officials to pay attention to.
Ismaylov concludes his article by saying that a necessary condition for dealing with this threat is “the creation of conditions which exclude an increase in the number of supporters of the ideology of Wahhabism. Only by promoting quality education, more jobs, and improved living conditions and recreation will it be possible to respond to the challenges of radical forces.”