Religious intolerance in Azerbaijan worries local Sunni muslims
Mosque demolitions in Baku undermine tolerance claims and lead some to accuse the government of clinging onto the Soviet system of keeping a tight rein on believers, Leyla Amirova reports for IWPR.
On 11 May, Salman Aliev, a 50-year-old oil worker, said he was witness to the destruction of a mosque on the Oil Rocks, an offshore drilling settlement built on stilts and rock where 5,000 men work surrounded by the Caspian Sea.
“In the morning I heard this loud noise of machines from the direction of the mosque. When I got there, I saw how the wall of the mosque was being destroyed with a crane,” he said.
The mosque had been a well-built two-storey structure, with a minaret, a dome and air-conditioning but, while Aliev watched, the workers reduced it to a pile of rubble.
“They were not doing this because they wanted to. There was an order from the management, and so as to not lose their jobs they did this,” he said.
Azerbaijan’s state oil company SOCAR said the destruction of the mosque was necessary for technical reasons, while the State Committee for Working with Religious Organisations, GKRR, issued a statement saying the mosque had been built without permission. The religious organisation that built the mosque, it said, had not undergone state registration.
Although the flashy website promoting Baku this year as the Islamic culture capital boasts that Azerbaijan enjoys complete religious tolerance, the destruction of this and another mosque in the last two months has led some to accuse the government of clinging onto the Soviet system of keeping a close watch on believers.
Apart from the demolitions, a mosque, the Turk Camisi, built by the Turkish embassy, has been closed, supposedly for repair work.
On 26 April, the Prophet Muhammad mosque was demolished in Baku itself, following a decision by a regional court in November. A criminal case has been opened into whether Mirvaleh Movsumov, head of the mosque, stole the nine cubic metres of land on which the mosque stood from a local university.
The chairman of the GKRR, Hidayat Orujov, told journalists the mosque had been destroyed completely legally.
“It was not a mosque that was destroyed, but an illegal structure. We are not aware who named this mosque in honour of the prophet. Some unknown forces are giving disinformation to society about the illegal removal of a mosque so as to cause trouble,” he said.
There are some 1,750 functioning mosques in Azerbaijan, following a boom in religious observance after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Construction of 92 of these mosques was funded from abroad, 63 from Kuwait, 24 from Turkey, and the rest from Qatar, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The influence of foreigners in the religious revival has created concerns that new variants of Islam – particularly the puritanical Wahhabi strain native to Saudi Arabia – could undermine stability in Azerbaijan.
“We are picking up attempts to spread radical traditions in the country,” said Orujov. “These are small groups, without strength of influence. We are fighting against them.”
He said such groups declined to register with the state committee, because they wanted to operate outside the law.
“If they are registered, then they will have to work by the rules,” he said. “They do not want to do this. The aim of these groups is to destroy religious stability in the country.”
And independent faith groups are unlikely to be able to relax soon, for the rules for them to abide by were toughened on 10 May, with the adoption of a law on religious freedom.
Under the new law, religious groups can operate only if their actions conform to Azerbaijan’s constitution, and registration can be cancelled by a court at any time. The new law tightly controls their activities, for instance religious literature and objects can only be sold in special shops, which have to cleared with the authorities.
“These amendments are intended to perfect the law. They are intended to bar religious groups which preach violence, and to ensure equality for all confessions. All changes to the law have been adopted in accordance with European conventions,” said Rabiyat Aslanova, chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights.
But one Muslim human rights activist, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who heads the Centre for the Defence of Freedom of Conscience and Religion, said the new changes to the law were a return to Soviet traditions of government.
“The point is to make all communities in the country undergo registration once more, and to declare all those failing registration outside the law,” he said. “This is a Soviet tradition. Everything that is outside control must be declared an enemy. There have been recent restrictions on freedom of speech and now they are moving against freedom of conscience.
“The state says that the aim of the changes is to fight religious radicalism. But in fact the changes will lead to the completely opposite result.
“In a year when Baku has been declared the capital of Islamic culture, these actions look particularly cynical. It appears that one of the officials has lost his sense of proportion, or else doesn’t understand what harm his actions are causing to the image of Azerbaijan.”
Most Muslims in Azerbaijan follow the Shia branch of the faith, but there is also a Sunni population in Baku. They have suffered disproportionately from the closure of mosques, since they can no longer go to the Turkish embassy’s place of worship. Another mosque used by Sunnis, the Abu-Bakr, was closed in 2008 after a man threw a grenade through the window during evening prayer, killing three people.
Meanwhile, the Sunni mosque in Icheri Shekher, the old town in the centre of the city, has become crowded, particularly now that city authorities have stopped late-arriving worshippers who can’t get in to pray from doing so outside. As a result, men have taken over what was once the part of the mosque reserved for women, so now the latter have nowhere to pray.
“They told me to go to the next-door mosque, but that is for Shia. Why can’t they pray there themselves? This is disrespect to women,” said Solmaz Gasimova, a woman standing outside the mosque in central Baku one recent Friday.
By Leyla Amirova in Baku for IWPR