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Is Sectarian Strife Brewing in Azerbaijan?

Discussion in 'Iranian Defence Forum' started by Homajon, Jul 27, 2017.

  1. Homajon

    Homajon FULL MEMBER

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    Is Sectarian Strife Brewing in Azerbaijan?

    by Eldar Mamedov

    At the beginning of July, two members of the Azerbaijani parliament, Qudrat Hassanguliyev and Fazil Gezenferoglu, launched a verbal attack against Iran. They accused Tehran of meddling in the internal affairs of a South Caucasus nation and supporting Armenia, which occupies Azerbaijani territory in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In the same vein, Yevda Abramov, the chair of the Israel caucus in the parliament, declared that Iran had no right to criticize Azerbaijan for its close ties with Israel, since it provided economic assistance to Armenia.

    This is not the first time Azerbaijani MPs have engaged in Iran-bashing. When Tehran expressed its displeasure with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Baku in December 2016, Hassanquliyev threatened Iran with violent disintegration, promising the emergence of “five new states” in its place.

    This time, the anti-Iranian vitriol was met with trenchant response from Ayatollah Seyed Hassan Ameli, the Friday prayer leader in the town of Ardabil in Iranian Azerbaijan and the Supreme Leader’s personal representative there. In a fiery sermon, Ameli castigated MPs for their insults of the “Iranian nation and its leaders.” More to the point, he recalled Iran’s role in securing Nakhichevan, the Azerbaijani exclave squeezed between Armenia and Iran. He also referenced Iranian efforts to mediate in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the early 1990s that the then-nationalist government in Baku rebuffed in order, as Ameli put it, “to please the US, Turkey, and Israel.”

    In a tightly controlled political system like Azerbaijan’s, it is highly unlikely that some MPs would deliberately stoke controversy on one of the nation’s most complex foreign policy issues, like relations with Iran, without at least tacit approval from the very top.

    Targeting Shiites at Home

    Iran´s position on Nagorno-Karabakh, however, has little to do with this latest outburst. After all, despite heavy Azerbaijani lobbying, no state has to date taken concrete steps in helping Baku restore its territorial integrity. The real reason why Iran is being singled out is the fear the ruling establishment in Baku feels towards the empowerment of local Shiite actors. Although Shiites constitute roughly 70% of Azerbaijan´s population, the government fuels the narrative that Shiism is essentially an Iranian import.

    With the rapid growth in the number of believers, the ruling elite has reasons to be worried. It has successfully emasculated the political opposition by mainstreaming the secular Turkic nationalism, an ideology that drove Azerbaijan’s pro-independence movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Occasionally, it even borrows from the liberal, pro-Western vocabulary. But it cannot credibly appropriate the Islamist discourse. Both pillars of the Iranian system—republicanism and Islamism—are the antithesis of the secular autocratic rule of the President Ilham Aliyev’s administration.

    In dealing with the Shiite challenge, the government has adopted a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, it tries to isolate “radical clerics” such as Taleh Baghir-zadeh, a young, Iran-educated preacher who was jailed in 2015 after clashes in Nardaran, a village near Baku. On the other, it discreetly promotes popular clerics who focus on spiritual fulfillment rather than political and social activism. Such is the case, for example, of Hajji Shaheen Hasanli, the prayer leader of the historical Meshadi Dadash mosque in Baku. The Spiritual Board of Muslims of the South Caucasus, a Soviet-era left-over designed to control the religious life of Azerbaijani Muslims, recently promoted Hajji Shaheen to be its representative in the Nasimi district of Baku, one of the capital’s biggest.

    In another step to curb the influence of the alleged radicals, the government banned foreign-educated imams from the country’s mosques.

    These steps, however, largely failed to achieve their objectives. While Hajji Shaheen seems outwardly loyal to the system, his emphasis on the re-Islamization of society builds a constituency for more pronounced Islamist politics, which is sharply at odds with the regime’s assertive secularism. Besides, there are limits to how close he can associate with the establishment without losing the appeal of his pious base.

    Mosques especially in the provinces, meanwhile, routinely ignore the ban on foreign-educated preachers. Worried about the popularity of these “unofficial” imams, the government occasionally reacts by arresting them, as it did in April 2017 with Hajji Sardar Hajjihasanli, a respected, Iran-educated cleric in the town of Jalilabad, in the south of the country. Largely, however, the authorities turn a blind eye to such practices, wary of igniting an open confrontation with the Shiite believers.

    The activities of the Iranian Cultural Center in Baku present the government with another uncomfortable dilemma. As part of Iran’s embassy, the center enjoys diplomatic immunity, but it spreads the religious-ideological message of the Islamic Republic. Anti-Americanism and general skepticism of the Western idea of democracy are prominent themes. The khutbas (sermons) of the center’s charismatic Azerbaijani-speaking preacher, Seyed Ali Akbar Ojaghnejad, are increasingly popular among the Shiite youth of Baku. The government in Baku, however, is reluctant to confront Tehran over these activities, since it also occasionally uses Ojaghnejad, a son-in-law of the hardline Iranian Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, to pass messages to Tehran when relations between the two countries go sour.

    The government’s case is also undermined by a lack of capable cadres. Grey, Soviet-era ideological apparatchiks are no match for charismatic preachers who speak a plain, emotionally appealing language. Occasionally, there are exceptions like Elshad Isqandarov, a previous head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, himself a practicing Shiite. But his ability to build trust-based relations with the religious communities eventually forced him out of his job, with the pro-government media accusing him, absurdly, of being both a Khomeinist and a follower of the Turkish Fethullah Gulen cult, despite the mutual incompatibility of these two currents.

    Divide and Rule?

    With such an unconvincing track record, there is a risk that the government will revert to a tried-and-true policy of divide and rule by backing a perceived weaker side in the country´s sectarian divide. It pursued such a policy in 1990s, when Sunnis, even of Salafist persuasion, were favored over the Shiites. Since then, the balance of power has tilted strongly in favor of the Shiites.

    As part of an effort to balance them, there is a talk of re-opening the Abu Bakr mosque in Baku, which, up to its closure few years ago, was the focal point of Salafist missionary activity in the country. Despite that, the government tolerated its imam, the Saudi-educated Gamet Suleymanov, since he repeatedly made a point of recognizing President Ilham Aliyev’s authority.

    Some Baku-based observers worry that the government might even be tempted to re-direct Azerbaijani Salafists, returning home from Syria and Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic State, against the country’s Shiites. Although pitting the Sunni and Shiite radicals against each other might deflect some pressure from the ruling elite, the long-term consequences for the country would be disastrous. As Altay Goyushov, Azerbaijan’s leading expert on Islam, warns, at present the number of political Islamists in Azerbaijan, of both Sunni and Shiite persuasion, barely exceeds 20% of the total population. The confrontation, however, would push more people to define themselves primarily according to their narrow sectarian identities and lead to a full-fledged sectarian strife, with unpredictable and destabilizing consequences.


    About the Author
    [​IMG]
    Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.


    http://lobelog.com/is-sectarian-strife-brewing-in-azerbaijan/


    :D:D:D
     
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  2. Aramagedon

    Aramagedon SENIOR MEMBER

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    Israelis are reall plague.
     
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  3. pin gu

    pin gu FULL MEMBER

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    they are just creating distraction for their UAE brothers because of their recent trip to Armenia


    "Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, on Tuesday visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex as part of his official visit to Armenia "
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  4. Homajon

    Homajon FULL MEMBER

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    Maybe someone here can answer me a question:
    I know that after Russia took North Azerbaijan from Iran, the Russians brought many Central Asian Turks there to foster the Turk identity.
    So are todays Sunnis only descendants of of those imported Turks, or are there also native Azeris who are Sunnis? Does anybody know?
     
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  5. Homajon

    Homajon FULL MEMBER

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    Attacks In Azerbaijan: Manipulation Of A “Shiite Threat” And Iran

    JULY 16, 2018

    by Eldar Mamedov

    [​IMG]
    Yunis Safarov


    Highly unusual events have been rocking the small, but strategically important Caspian nation of Azerbaijan during the last week. An attempt on the life of Elmar Veliyev, the mayor of the nation´s second city, Ganja, took place on July 3. Although seriously wounded, the mayor survived. But a week later two policemen were killed during related protests in the city centre.

    Although the details of the case remain murky, the authorities were quick to blame “Islamic extremists” for the crime. They pointed to Yunis Safarov as a main suspect. Safarov is a Russian citizen of Azerbaijani origin who allegedly lived in Qom, a spiritual center of Iranian Shiism. The authorities claimed that Safarov “fought in Syria for the same goal he pursued in Azerbaijan—an establishment of sharia-based state.”

    This line is full of glaring inconsistencies. The Qom connection strongly suggests that Safarov is a Shiite. Yet those who fight in Syria for the “sharia-based” state are Salafis, the bitter enemies of the Shiites. The Shiites, on the contrary, have rallied around the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad. The officials’ earlier insistence that the assassination attempt was merely a criminal act devoid of any political or religious motivation only fueled the deep cynicism many Azerbaijanis felt about the official version. Some even believe it was a false flag operation to justify a subsequent repression of any opposition to President Ilham Aliyev’s rule.

    Despite the obvious holes in the official account, the authorities seem eager to push for the “Shiite trace” narrative. The pro-government website haqqin.az, usually an accurate barometer of the official mood, decried a nefarious “Shiite-liberal alliance” supposedly plotting to overthrow the secular regime. Former minister of foreign affairs Tofiq Zulfugarov went a step further and directly blamed Iran for stoking the “Islamic revolutionary unrest” in Ganja. He warned Tehran to “re-consider” Baku’s position of not allowing the territory of Azerbaijan to be used as a platform for third countries´ hostilities against Iran.

    Zulfugarov, although technically still an official of the ministry of foreign affairs, does not speak for the Azerbaijani government. Yet in a tightly controlled system like Azerbaijan’s, any freelancing on such a sensitive issue is hardly conceivable. So what does Baku’s embrace of an anti-Shiite/anti-Iranian narrative portend for Azerbaijan’s positioning on the US-led efforts to destabilize Iran?

    The idea of luring Azerbaijan into a regional anti-Iranian alignment, alongside the Persian Gulf monarchies, has always had enthusiastic supporters in Washington. Azerbaijan´s geographical proximity to Iran and the possibility of using the large Azeri minority in Iran to undermine the Islamic Republic represent useful assets in pro-regime-change circles.

    Some factors make Azerbaijan potentially receptive to such overtures. Baku’s staunchly secularist elite dislikes and distrusts the Islamic Republic. Despite improvements in bilateral relations, notably after the election of Hassan Rouhani as the president of Iran in 2013, Azerbaijan still suspects Iran of harboring expansionist ambitions and is irritated by Tehran´s close relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan´s regional foe.

    Although Azerbaijan, like most of the international community, formally welcomed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, recent statements by some of its senior officials were ambiguous. For example, the country’s influential ambassador to Washington Elin Suleymanov, who is reportedly close to President Aliyev, said that the JCPOA should have benefited from “input from America´s regional allies.” Another senior official told LobeLog that, in his opinion, the deal was flawed as it did not impose restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles. These views are entirely in line with Israeli and Gulf positions. That, perhaps, is not surprising, given the investment Azerbaijan makes in cultivating the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington.

    Yet, there are limits to Baku fully and publicly embracing the Israeli-Gulf line on Iran.

    First, as Azerbaijan’s oil resources, the basis of its recent relative prosperity, are finite, economic diversification is key to maintaining the country’s stability. Leveraging Azerbaijan’s geographic position to turn it into a regional hub for trade, transport, and logistics is a key pillar of this strategy. For such a strategy to succeed, constructive relations with Iran are essential. This is the background behind the trilateral Azerbaijan-Russia-Iran dialogue, launched by President Aliyev at the first trilateral summit in Baku in 2016.

    Second, and perhaps more important, Baku is wary of antagonizing the increasing number of Shiite believers in the country. Although reliable data are hard to come by, Kanan Rovshanoglu in a paper for Baku Research Institute, an independent think-tank, points to the growing popularity in Azerbaijan of the Ashura ceremonies held to mourn the death of Imam Hussein, slain in Karbala, in modern-day Iraq, in 680 AD. There is also a significant increase in the number of Azerbaijani Shiite pilgrims to Iran and Iraq. In recent years, both the Ashura ceremonies and pilgrimages have reportedly grown more politicized as their participants demand the release of imprisoned Azerbaijani Islamist leaders such as Taleh Bagirov from the Muslim Unity Movement. The regime in Baku is wary that in the case of a bilateral crisis, Tehran could mobilize these politically active Shiites against Aliyev. So, they serve as a deterrent against Baku moving too far against Tehran.

    The Azerbaijani government perhaps believes it can have it both ways: reaping the economic benefits of cooperation with Iran and using the Shiite card to discredit any domestic opposition to the ruling regime. Alternatively, the haste with which Baku declared a Shiite connection to the violent incidents in Ganja could also stem from the authorities’ own confusion and incompetence. When something wrong happens, they blame whomever it takes, without regard to logic, consistency, or consequences.

    Even if Iran chooses restraint and treats events in Azerbaijan as an internal affair, demonizing the Shiites will inevitably lead to a new crisis in bilateral relations. This will undermine the favored narrative of the Azerbaijani government that it represents a reliable and stable partner in the region. This will in turn damage Azerbaijan’s foreign policy, and not only vis-a-vis Iran, but also other players, such as the European Union, with which Azerbaijan strives to develop closer relationship and which attaches high priority to preserving the JCPOA with Iran.

    This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

    ELDAR MAMEDOV
    Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.

    https://lobelog.com/attacks-in-azerbaijan-manipulation-of-a-shiite-threat-and-iran/