Religious processes in post-Soviet Islamic secular republics, including Azerbaijan, have their specificity. They considerably differ from analogical processes occurring in other regions where Islam is traditionally spread and where Islamic institutionalism has deep historical roots.
In the Soviet period, being deprived of social-political role, Islam in Azerbaijan was reduced to traditional and everyday functions. After independence was gained the role of Islam was overestimated: it became one of the component parts of Azerbaijani identity. Great number of old and new mosques and religious schools (madrasah) were opened, was formed a strata of people who got education in well known foreign Islamic centers. Were restored Islamic holidays, the propaganda of Islam was raised to the governmental level. Islam was considered to be a most important value by the state and was underlined unique, national character of Azerbaijani Islam. State-religion relations were regulated by certain laws, and a regulation about the freedom of religion was adopted in the constitution. Pilgrimage of the president Heydar Aliyev to Mecca in 1994 grew the importance of religion in the country.
However, these realities did not further institutionalization of Islam, specification of its role in social life. Although in Azerbaijan there are structures regulating both religious (Administration of Caucasian Muslims) and state (State Committee in Charge of Religious Organizations) structures, however, separate social structures don’t trust traditional religious institutions and little by little get involved in non-traditional ones. Religious radicalism is also spread, which makes a ground for Islam to be politicized. In the reports of human right organizations and different international organization relating to Azerbaijan the state authorities are advised to organize public discussions on Islam and Islamic institutions involving independent and official clergymen, representatives of social organizations and intellectuals in them.
In comparison with Christian churches trying to centralize religious issues to regulate them, there is not such a structure in Islam. In Azerbaijan most of the religious groups collaborate with the government and recognizes spiritual authority of the state supported Administration of Caucasian Muslims. However, there are separate spiritual groups, which don’t obey the Administration, and such groups don’t have that much authority in society. In separate cases independent imams are more influential which represent both traditional and non-traditional branches of Islam in Azerbaijan. For example, the Imam of Abu Baqr mosque imam Hamet and the former imam of Juma mosque, human rights advocate Ilghar Ibrahimoghlu. The religious elite make no attempts to have any dialogue with them apprehending the fact of religious dissidence in the country quite painfully.
Although Azerbaijan is a Shiite state, from the standpoint of religious institutionalization it is different from the biggest Shiite state, Iran. There is no Shiah spiritual hierarchy, no marja’ al-taklid – religious firstprimary source – the faithful should follow. Sheikh ul-Islam of Azerbaijan is not considered to be the absolute interpreter of dogmata and holly laws.
According to the survey carried out in 2006, 7.2% of population is profound believers, 49.7% believe in God but don’t use the principles of Islam in practice. 2/3 of the Muslim population is Shiites, 1/3 – Sunnis.
In its turn the state avoids of spreading the influence of Islam in the country’s social-political life and aspires to restrain religion and preserve secular principles in the country. Azerbaijani authorities periodically exerted pressure and used violence to religious and political parties, pro-Islam figures and non-traditional Islamic directions and religious activists in Azerbaijan. These realities have considerably hampered progressing of Islamic discourse, specifying the role of Islam and its social-political life.
From the beginning of 2006 the Islamic factor acquired more important role in Azerbaijan’s social-political life, which was conditioned both by outward and inward factors. As a result of the usual falsification of parliamentary elections of 2005 caused disappointment to western values and the west in general. Gradually advocates of the Islamic way of development appeared in the political field.
The Azerbaijani community also became more sensible to the realities relating to Iran in geopolitical developments, which revealed anti-American moods. Azerbaijan also responded to the war waged by the Prophet Mohammed’s caricature in 2005. In the beginning of February Baku, later on also in Nardaran (religious district not far from Baku) were held protest action. Were burnt the flags of the US, Israel, Denmark as well as Armenia and Switzerland. On February 11 not that well-known Azerbaijani newspaper “Yeni Khabar” printed caricature of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. In April Jewish organizations were threatened by some unknown “Muslim brothers.” In summer 2006, during Israeli-Lebanon war, were held crowded anti-Israeli rallies in Baku and a few other places, which were unprecedented.
According to the data of survey carried out in April-May of spring 2006 by the Center for Religious Studies in Baku and Sumgait, 9% out of 600 young Azerbaijani responders was for the creation of Islamic state in Azerbaijan.
It is also noteworthy the survey carried out in April-May of 2006 by the Center for Economic and Political Studies among 1000 responders all over the country. In this case for the creation of Islamic republic was 19% of responders, 30% were for partially. If we put it in another way, for about half of the responders was for Islamic moral values. 40% of responders are ready to support any Islamic republic in international relations if the latter one has a problem with any of the Islamic countries.
The number of people wearing Islamic kerchief in Azerbaijan has been increased recently causing many social problems. In 1999 a law was adopted on not wearing kerchiefs while photographing for official documents. In 2007 the Azerbaijani parliament was going to discuss a bill “on education” prohibiting to wear kerchief in the educational institutions. However, the problem got a wide public resonance and was taken out of legislative plane.
Today there are religious circles in Azerbaijan which put forward the ideas of declaring Islam as a state religion, including the Islamic laws into legislation, increasing Islam’s influence in social life. For example, in Azerbaijan was risen the questions of polygamy and temporarily marriages. It was required for women not to be prohibited to wear kerchief in photos for official documents.
One can notice certain religiosity in separate circles of youth and intellectuals as well as in Baku. It goes without saying that activity of the Islamic structures is more effective in needy stratum if population, which in the context of the state’s inaction see their support in Islam. In this sense Islam has a considerable potential to become the ideological basis of social-political movements.
According to separate Azerbaijani researchers, the problems one can witness in the religious field hinder formation of democracy and civil society, pose threat to the existence of secular state and it is necessary to work out corresponding conception to overcome them. According to an arabologist Nariman Gasimoglu, suchlike problems occur only because the state hasn’t determined the place and role of Islam in the civil society, which is of strategic importance. It is mentioned that the authorities are not able to settle religious problems only through administrative-legal mechanisms.
The Institute for Islam and Democracy headed by Gasimoglu, has worked out “Conception of determining the place and role of Islam in Azerbaijani society” the key element of which is religious-enlightening activity of the state. The state, in spite of its secular character, should lead it. Islam is to be the monopoly of the nation and not of separate people, religious figures or the community. In education programs are to be included the lessons of the Koran and to avoid of discords the Islamic principles should be interpreted only from the standpoint of the Karan but not at all of other Islamic firstprimary sources. Religious rites, ceremonies and preaches are to be held only in the Azerbaijani language for Islam to be understandable to all. This very course may unite the society around common religious-ethnical values, overcome religious dissociation and radicalism and avoid of threats directed against secular principles.
It should be mentioned that growth in religiosity is furthered by polarization in the Azerbaijani society, devaluation of moral criteria and lack of democracy resulting disappointment in traditional religious institutions and secular values.
However, at present the society demands preserving secularity. The surveys regularly carried out have come to prove it. In the visible future traditional and non-traditional religious directions have no chance to be risen to the political level. A few groups, which publicly speak about creation of the Islamic state, have insufficient strategic conceptions and mechanisms of influence. In their turn, the authorities exaggerate the threats coming from Islam to ground violent acts and control the religious field.