Azerbaijanis become more or less religious - Dialogue with the Islamic World

Friday afternoon in the old town of Baku. The sun shines over the restored caravanserais towards the Caspian Sea. On the roofs of the Art Nouveau palaces, liveried waiters serve cappuccinos and cocktails, while businesspeople let the week draw to a close.

Oriental jazz echoes from the speakers in the restaurants. Nobody here listens to the muezzin who is clinking to prayer from the minarets of the old mosques. Religion does not play a major role in Azerbaijan's public life.

"96 percent of Azerbaijanis are Muslims, but only eight percent practice their religion," says Hidayat Orujov. The Minister for Religious Affairs has his office in the middle of the busy old town.

Work is also carried out here on Friday, which is actually sacred to Muslims - only Saturdays and Sundays are non-working days in the former Soviet republic. "I was brought up to be an atheist," says the 66-year-old Orujov, who is now responsible for the relationship between religion and state. "That was the prescribed state doctrine."

Azerbaijan has long been secular, but never anti-religious, says Orujov: "Our country has always been very tolerant." In the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was known as the only republic without cases of anti-Semitism or violence against other denominations. "With independence, we made this tolerance state policy."

If 20 years ago there were only 18 mosques in the whole country, today there are more than 1,700, says the minister. More than 50 religious communities are officially registered. "The Azerbaijani state is doing everything it can to guarantee religious freedom for all." Baku should not only export oil and gas, but also its religious tolerance - the praise of the former German ambassador has become a household word in Baku.

70 years of communism, 20 years of capitalism

One of the smallest communities in Azerbaijan has built its church directly on the Hafenstrasse in the new town of Baku. In the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Catholics celebrate their mass on Sunday: first in the liturgical language of Russian, then in English - for the families of Asians, South Americans and Europeans who work here in the oil business or in the embassies. Hardly more than 300 Azerbaijanis are Catholic. But the church is always full at masses in English, says Father Vladimir Fekete.

As a person of different faith, he encounters benevolent openness, says Fekete, who wears the priestly collar shirt not only to worship but also on the street. "I have not yet met anyone who strictly rejects foreign religions - or religion in general. But it cannot be overlooked that there is a lack of religious practice, prayer, the church," admits the native of Slovakia. "These are the consequences of 70 years of communism and 20 years of capitalism."

Freedom of belief is not as pronounced as in Europe, says Fekete. His small community still lacks official registration with the ministry, and many sects are permanently denied recognition. "But the Azerbaijanis are very tolerant by their standards." No comparison with strictly Muslim countries like neighboring Iran, says Fekete.

Personality cult around Aliyev

Azerbaijan is - from a purely denominational perspective - part of the Shiite crescent. Nine out of ten Muslims here profess the Twelve Shiah. A border more than 500 kilometers long connects the south of Azerbaijan with the northern provinces of Iran, which are populated by several million ethnic Azerbaijan, called eastern and western Azerbaijan.

But the dominant role of Islam and the virulent anti-Americanism of the southern neighbors are suspect to the Azerbaijanis despite the centuries-old common roots. The rulers in Baku are afraid of the Islamization and radicalization of their own population - be it due to the influence from Iran or the increasing work of Sunni fundamentalists in the Islamic world.

After all, there seems to be no room for a renaissance of religion, even a political Islam, alongside the personality cult around the late President Haidar Alijev. From the marketplace in the province to the international airport in Baku, all important places and institutions bear the name of the most important politician in the South Caucasian republic for decades. Facades and streets are adorned with his aphorisms.

Alijev was head of the Communist Party's Central Committee as early as 1969, and shortly before his death in 2003 he enthroned his son Ilham as the successor to the presidency.

Last year, in a controversial referendum, the head of state deleted a clause from the constitution that had limited the number of his possible terms of office. In the same year he had the regulations for the registration of religious communities tightened. Because they allegedly could not present a proper registration, violated building laws or were supposed to be renovated, several mosques in Baku were closed - including houses of prayer that had been built with Turkish or Saudi Arabian money.

Minister of Religion Orujov emphasized that there were no political reasons for the closings - but said at the same time that Azerbaijan did not accept "interference by foreign powers".

Fear of mosques

"The state seems to have become downright afraid of mosques," says Ilgar Ibrahimoglu. Until the renovation of the Juma Mosque, the young imam preached in the eclectic old town. But the authorities used the temporary closure of the church six years ago to unceremoniously pull the government critic and his community out of the door.

Since then, the congregation has met in the backyard of a business district - but not only to pray. Ibrahimoglu, 34, also publishes a newspaper, teaches philosophy and is active in several organizations promoting freedom of religion and expression.

"Communities that don't mess with the government have no problems," says Ibrahimoglu. "Anyone who thinks differently, on the other hand, is upset." The militant imam fell from grace when he called for protests after the 2003 Aliyev election, which was overshadowed by allegations of fraud. "Believing, self-confident Muslims feel like all representatives of civil society," Ibrahimoglu is convinced. "That is not welcomed."

The imam himself has close contacts with the human rights activist scene in Baku and campaigns for detained bloggers and newspapers threatened with closure. "Our understanding of religion is not limited to praying and fasting," says Ibrahimoglu. "We are also committed to rapprochement with Europe and protest against police violence. We make our own agenda. That unsettles the authorities."

Klaus Heymach

© 2010

Editor: Nimet Seker /

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