Islam’s non-linear revival in post-Soviet Azerbaijan politicized

By | Rachel Brooks

January 28, 2021 

Note: The fire temple of Baku burns with the flame of the country’s eternal spiritualism. Azerbaijan fits none of the religious molds which Soviet-styled secularism has imposed upon it. The Azerbaijani departure from Soviet-era secularism into a hybrid secular Muslim society has often been misconstrued by the western world as being similar to Iran’s adoption of sharia law. Azerbaijan’s reclamation of Islam and the forming of a new Azerbaijani social philosophy have been non-linear inspite of these politicizations, and the advantages they give the Islamic Republic in terms of regional influence. 

Image credit: “File:Templo de fuego, Baku, Azerbaiyán, 2016-09-27, DD 33.jpg” by Diego Delso is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

In the research book “Religious Revival and Secularism in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan,” the author explores the phenomenon of “competing” sects within Islam in Azerbaijan. Islam was built on the foundation of already deeply spiritual culture in Azerbaijan.

 For long before the development of Islam in Azerbaijan, the ancient historian Strabo states that Azerbaijan had a primal religion, a form of Zoroastrianism, which has sometimes also been called “fire worshipping,” after some elements of the religion. 

The “fire-worship” aspect of ancient Azerbaijan is where Azerbaijan derives its name, which translates into English as “the land of the sacred fire.” Remnants of this mystic influence, and worship of fire, remain in modern Azerbaijan. Examples of it include the fire temple of Baku. 

 Strabo’s account of the early pre-Muslim Azerbaijan sets the foundation of the deeply mystic roots of Azerbaijan. These roots were covered in the frost of austerity in the Soviet era, but in the post-Soviet era, a surge of defining Muslim-majority demographics began to identify themselves. Azerbaijan, with its diverse culture, had many more religions present in the region than the Soviet State would allow. When the state was lifted, and the one color of secularism was washed away, it was revealed that Islam had the predominant influence, and had since the Safavid era. 

Non-linear religious revival 

This research noted that religious revival may result from many factors and that the competition of philosophy alone was not enough to define the reshaping of Azerbaijan’s Soviet-to-post-Soviet transition. 

The book refers to other contributing factors of the reshaping of the Caucasus as a whole in terms of religious revival. Azerbaijan stood out to the researchers of the particular study of the above-cited book because of its non-Arab Muslim development. Azerbaijan, in the heart of the Caucasus, set the pulse of the post-Soviet transition, and best illustrates the complete clash and conflict between rigid Soviet secularism and rebirth and return of cultural identity that extends even the pre-Russian-Iranian regional war. 

The development of a Muslim revival in Azerbaijan was non-linear likewise because of the open interpretation of Islam’s laws the Azerbaijani had post-Soviet rigidity. The republic system that a free Azerbaijan adopted held a social consensus on the fundamental similarity between Islam’s existing laws, and the laws of the constitution. For this reason, Azerbaijan never necessitated a “sharia” law, as did the Iranian counterpart, because Azerbaijan considered the law of the state and the law of Islam to be mutually intelligible. 

A new method for a new Azerbaijan 

Likewise, the transition from Soviet Islam to the post-Soviet revival of Islam was non-linear because Azerbaijani Islam did not simply “return to the past.” The implication is that Azerbaijani resumed fundamentalist or traditional values of Islam once the Soviet control was null. The research of the above-cited book notes that a new element of global “interconnectedness” had entered Azerbaijani Muslim thought at this time. A traditionalist return was not compatible with the new Azerbaijan, which was rapidly entering the information age, with both the zeal of revolutionaries and the revived interest in Islam. Azerbaijan, with its roots of open-minded mysticism, likewise, never had a cement tradition. Islam was always undergoing a fluid evolution in the region, and so, in the new Azerbaijan, Islam would revive and evolve simultaneously. 

Political disadvantages of the rekindling of Islam 

Yet, this rekindling of Islam had its political disadvantages from the new republic that had emerged from the final collapse of the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan, influenced by the strong desire for liberty from the oppression of the Soviet regime, shunned the Khomenist adoption of Shia. Yet, because of Azerbaijan’s connection to the zealous character of Shia Islam, a sect of Islam that believes in the divine appointment of the Twelve Imams who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad, the Soviet-influence secularist world has been able to contort the Azerbaijani public image. The ideation in the secularist world is that, because Azerbaijan is associated with Shiism, it must be a radical, Islamist state such as the Iranian regime has become under Khomeniest control.

 In this way, the secularist world continued to suppress Azerbaijan religiously. This suppression was not the same as the suppression created by the 70 years under secularist censorship of religious expression. This became a religious identity assassination, a deletion of separate identity for Azerbaijan from its ethnoreligiously similar states. 

This suppression in public image lent itself to the exclusion of Azerbaijan from full entry into the international community. As Azerbaijan was a young republic, teetering on the anemia of independence obtained from the immediate necessity of post-Soviet control, this was a deadly precedent. 

The domino effect of Azerbaijan suppression

In October 2020, Irina Tsukerman filed a report in the Jewish News Syndicate which highlights the political advantages of the suppression of Azerbaijan’s placement in the international community. 

This report highlights the way that Azerbaijan suppression creates political advantages that have a domino effect throughout the Caucasus, Persia, and Gulf regions. 

In Tsukerman’s analysis, one sees Iran standing to benefit from the lack of full cooperation between the secular world and Azerbaijan as a unique island of the Muslim world. In this instance, Iran can exploit the biases of the secularist world against Azerbaijan to suppress both the major ethnic population of the non-Pars Iran and avoid challenges to the regime. 

Iran “kills two birds” 

Iran can also kill the proverbial two birds with the single stone of this secularist public slant toward Azerbaijan. The mortal enemies of Iran, the U.S., and Israel, are likewise held at a disadvantage due to the secularist ostracization and politicization of Azerbaijan’s Muslim status. Azerbaijan, being the only member of the Muslim majority states to have a fully multicultural and secularly influenced society, is predisposed to cooperate with the U.S. in the region. Likewise, Azerbaijan has a pronounced relationship with Israel, an ally in keeping the Iranian regime at bay, and a nation with which Azerbaijan’s large Jewish community shares a communal heritage. 

Example, the narrative of the Syrian Jihadist in Karabakh 

During the Karabakh conflict 2020 era, the mainstream media, continuing to perpetuate the narrative of Azerbaijan as a Shiite state, also pushed a narrative of Syrian jihad fighters being transported to the conflict zone. This played upon the misconception in the west, which has been recirculated by the Soviet-era vilification of Azerbaijan, that Azerbaijan is staunchly Shiite. The continued portrayal in the western world was that Azerbaijan was a radical state, similar to Iran and that it was suppressing Armenian Christianity through the battle for Karabakh.

When the presence of Syrian jihads on the Azerbaijani side was debunked by the Turkish media, who linked the images circulating online to soldiers-for-hire recruited by Armenia from the PKK militia, the press’ version of the story changed. The Greek City Times is an example of how the narrative bias will bend to new facts but never bends to alleviate the bias against Azerbaijan due to its Shia majority. The western media narrative consistently sought to discredit both Turkey and Azerbaijan’s version of the news due to the low press freedom rankings both countries face, caused by the governmental restrictions in the region on the press There was no objectivity in reviewing the facts because of the bias against the fact-gatherers.

Likewise, there is a gaping flaw in the narrative that Syrian jihadist groups would be drawn to fight for Azerbaijan on the principle of shared Shiism. Syrian Shiite jihad was directly influenced by the clerics of the Khomeniest doctrine of Shia. Azerbaijan, as mentioned above, has shunned this doctrine or the adoption of strict sharia for the state. Likewise, Azerbaijan would not require a bus-load of poorly funded militia from the jihad of Syria because Azerbaijan’s military forces were far greater in supply and number than Armenia’s. 

The narrative was built on the convenience of a few common ground elements between the actors of the conflict. By stressing these small points, the media was able to strain and mold the narrative to suit the need. The need being to publicly alter the image of Azerbaijan as a radical state, and then to spin that narrative like a cocoon around the country, where it could not emerge from the skein of falsehoods and misconstrued points.  

The Khomeniest relationship of Syrian jihad has been described in detail by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Syrian jihad did not develop in a vacuum. The Washington Institute connected Syrian jihad directly to the Iranian regime’s ideology of velayat-e-faqih. 

The Shiite Jihad in Syria did not manifest itself in a theological or ideological vacuum. Historically, Shiite clerics are often the main figures pushing their coreligionists to fight in jihad and legitimizing their martyrdom.

For the conflict in Syria, the call to jihad traversed a direct ideological path, set forth by clerics following Iran’s ideology of velayat-e faqih. Looking at the clerics who have encouraged the Shiite jihad in Syria is just as important as focusing on the actual groups involved in combat. If one trend is slightly clearer, it is that both the traditional clerics of Najaf, Iraq, and radicals like Muqtada al-Sadr (also of Iraq) did not fully support the campaign and that efforts to rally Shiite fighters to join the war were mainly driven by Iran-backed clerical circles,” wrote the Washington Institute.

Despite the direct relationship to the clerics of the IRGC regime, the Syrian jihad is not seen as separate in the biases of the western world. Shia Islam is poorly understood separate from the fanatics of the faith in the west, and this continued prejudice has reflected on the cycle of reporting Azerbaijani events.