Once in a while, an article comes along which so clearly underlines the raison d’être of this blog. In an article on the 27th of April in The Washington Times (not to be confused with the more well known Washington Post), Xandra Kayden, Senior Fellow at the School of Public Affairs at UCLA argues that the US should refrain from criticising Azerbaijan’s human rights record since this would be detrimental to Western geostrategic interests in the Caspian, including Western efforts to contain Iran. Kayden argues that the US Congress funded RFE/RL service is guilty of supporting religious extremism by reporting on the detention of Muslim clerics and the closing of Mosques by the authorities in Azerbaijan, and raises the now familiar scare of an Islamist takeover in Azerbaijan by Iran-funded militants.
Now, it is rare that I find myself agreeing RFE/RL, which I tend to view as a crude Cold War-era propaganda instrument for US national interests which does not belong in the 21st century, but in this regard I would concede that the channel is absolutely right. The situation for democracy, human rights and freedom of speech in Azerbaijan is absolutely abysmal, and to its credit, the local subsidiary of RFE/RL in Azerbaijan, “Radio Azadliq” has done a very good job on reporting on these issues. Until “Radio Azadliq” and BBC Azerbaijani service was taken of FM band in the country two years ago, to vocal protests both from Western governments, international and local NGOs, these channels were seen as one of the few real sources of information not influenced by government propaganda and censorship.
Having previous experience from the diplomatic community in Azerbaijan, I have seen very little evidence of growing Islamic radicalism or Iranian influence in Azerbaijan. Granted, there are areas of the capital Baku which are hotbeds of religious sentiment, such as the suburb of Nardaran, which has frequently seen religiously motivated demonstrations. There have also been reports that Iranian secret services are operating in southern part of the country, especially in the city of Lenkoran near the Iranian border. However, Azerbaijan is an overwhelmingly secular state, and large sections of the populace harbor deep antipathy towards Iran for a variety of nationalistic reasons. There can also be no justification for the frequent arrests of clerics and closure Mosques which have become a trend over recent years. Rather that an effort to combat religious extremism, these actions seem more to be symptomatic of an authoritarian state which is becoming increasingly paranoid about any private independent initiative, religious or otherwise, which it cannot control, co-opt or coerce.
Overall, the situation for freedom of religion in the country is cause for concern, not only when it comes to mainstream religious activity, but also regarding the country’s minorities. Azerbaijan still operates with a Soviet era law that distinguishes between “traditional” and “non-traditional” religions in the country, which in practice means that “non-traditional” religious movements like Baptists or Muslim organisations like the Fethullah Gülen movement are looked at with suspicion or even outright hostility by the authorities. “Non-traditional” religious movements frequently experience denial of registration, confiscation of property, or other related pressure on their activities. This situation becomes even more precarious when “non-traditional” religious beliefs and ethnic minorities overlap, such as in the case of the Ingiloys and Udins. Harassment of religious communities is no doubt also grounded in the drive by corrupt local officials to exact bribes, and the threat of arrest, incarceration or other punishment is held out to those who do not comply.
Ironically, the combination of corruption and abuse by authorities, along with the suppression of legitimate and alternative means of expression, including religion, threatens to bring about the very scenario that Kayden warns about. In neighbouring Dagestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus, heavy handed treatment of the local Muslim population by the authorities and lack of political and economic prospects due to authoritarianism and gross corruption has resulted in Islamism receiving greater support, and becoming one of the few “true” opposition movements in the region in the eyes of the populace. It seems that if the Azerbaijani authorities continue their present policies, a similar development in Azerbaijan would also be likely. The question to ask Kayden would rather be why the West should have an interest in supporting a regime which corruption and repression might end up actually benefiting the Iranian regime and other anti-western Islamic extremists?
The Azerbaijani government and writers like Kayden see religion exclusively as a threat, and there certainly is much to criticise in the notions of fundamentalism and religious extremism, and other dogmatic and dangerous manifestations of religious belief. However, I would also argue that religion could play a beneficial role Azerbaijani society as whole, helping to tackle corruption, political apathy, and the lack of social capital that especially post-Soviet societies tend to be short on. During my travels in Azerbaijan and elsewhere in the Caucasus I have often met believers of diverse religions who have taken a brave stand against corruption and official abuse, often at considerable personal risk, and worked to the benefit of their communities while expecting little in return. Rather than suppressing legitimate religious sentiment which in turn might leave the playing field open to radical extremists, it seems to me that both the Azerbaijani authorities, the people of Azerbaijan, as well as the West, would benefit from upholding human rights and freedom of religion in the country.