Staunton, March 19 – Many Azerbaijanis now refer to the basic divide within Islam not as being between the Shiia who form about two-thirds of its population and the Sunni who form one-third but rather as between “Iranian” and “Turkish” variants, given their weak knowledge of theology and the support these two countries have given to the rebirth of Islam there since 1991.
Thus, for example, they refer to particular mosques by these national terms depending on who paid to build them or who provided the missionaries or trained the Azerbaijanis who staff them. As long as the basic division between Shiia and Sunni was maintained, such “national” identifications were a stand in for the theological ones and had few consequences.
But now there is evidence that Turkish and hence Sunni Islam is growing faster than is Iranian and hence Shiia Islam, a trend already affecting Baku’s relationship not only with the Sunni minority, which includes many ethnic minorities, but even more with the governments of Iran and Turkey, and one thus potentially more serious than the appearance of Salafis there.
An analysis on the Ansar.ru portal calls attention to all these risks. It cites Arif Yunusov, the author of the oft-cited “Political Islam in Azerbaijan,” to the effect that “over the last 20 years, the number of new mosques there has increased a hundred-fold and this trend will continue” (http://www.ansar.ru/analytics/2015/03/16/58406).
“The new generation of young Azerbaijanis is more interested in religion than are the representatives of the older generation who were educated in Soviet times,” he says. And their interest has been promoted by Shiite Iran and by Sunni missionaries from Turkey, with the latter having a greater impact than the former.
The Azerbaijani government, Ansar.ru says, views this a threat because it fears that the expanding Sunni activity will become the foundation for “a new opposition force, one interested in getting out from under the jurisdiction of Baku.” That has led the regime to impose ever tighter controls on Sunni groups.
But its moves in that direction have been opposed not only by many of the faithful who see no reason why they should not be able to wear the hijab or have their own mosques but also by some in Turkey, Azerbaijan’s closest ally, who have been active in promoting Sunni Islam in the former Soviet republic.
The situation with regard to Iran is equally complicated, the Ansar.ru analysis suggests. On the one hand, Iran is Azerbaijan’s immediate neighbors, three times as many Azerbaijanis live in Iran than live in Azerbaijan itself, and Azerbaijanis traditionally have been followers of the Shiia trend in Islam which is centered in Iran.
Thus, it is not surprising that Iran has provided support of various kinds, monetary, missionary, and educational, to the Shiia of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
But on the other hand, Tehran’s relations with Baku are not without problems given Azerbaijan’s warm relations with Israel, its secular principles, and its balanced foreign policy with respect to the European Union and the United States. And all those factors have prompted many in Baku to fear that Tehran wants to use an Islamist lever against Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani authorities, however, appear to be more concerned now about the rise of Sunni Islam there than they do about the spread of Shiia views. There are three reasons for this. First, most of the ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan are Sunnis, and the growth of Sunni Islam may lead them to become more active and even secessionist especially in the north.
Second, many in Baku believe that young people who turn to Sunni Islam may decide to go to the Middle East to fight Shiite groups, acquire military skills there, and then return to Azerbaijan and use them to oppose the regime, a fear that many in Moscow have talked about with regard to Russia and that has some foundation, if not yet a large one.
And third, many in the Azerbaijani capital are worried about a shift in the current balance between Sunni and Shiia faithful and the way in which that could trigger conflicts between the two trends, even if many of the followers of each do not understand all the theological distinctions between them.
Baku commentators say that there is a disturbing precedent – Iran -- for using such conflicts to establish theocracies and an equally disturbing possibility that Sunni Muslims may play a key role in changing the regime in a country – Turkey – which had a long tradition of secularism.