Is Baku Transforming Azerbaijan From A Shiia To A Sunni Muslim Country? – OpEd

“A curious discussion” has broken out in the Azerbaijani segment of the Internet concerning the possibility that Azerbaijan could shift from being a Shiia majority country to being a Sunni majority one and that Baku would like that to happen so Azerbaijan would line up with Turkey and Kazakhstan rather than with Iran.

In reporting this, Ali Abbasov of the OnKavkaz portal argues that this is happening because of tensions between Sunni Muslim states and Shiia Iran and because of Baku’s desire to line up with the former rather than the latter (onkavkaz.com/news/1558-baku-vozvraschaet-azerbaidzhan-k-sunnizmu-chtoby-uiti-ot-irana-i-vstat-v-rjad-s-ankaroi-i-astan.html).

While such a shift in religious affiliation would seem unlikely in most cases, there are at least two reasons why it may not be in Azerbaijan’s case. On the one hand, the split between Shiia and Sunnis in that country is much closer than many imagine, with roughly 60 percent of the population being Shiia and 40 percent Sunni.

And on the other, the legacy of communist-era anti-religious efforts means that many in Azerbaijan just as is the case in other post-Soviet states know far less about the specifics of their religious attachments than many assume. Indeed, for most of the past two decades, people there have referred to mosques as being “Turkish” or “Iranian” rather than Sunni or Shiia.

Consequently, it could very well be possible for Azerbaijan to “flip” in religious terms and for the government to organize such a change, although it would certainly be contested by Shiia inside Azerbaijan, by Shiia in the Azerbaijani majority in Iran, and by the Islamic Republic of Iran itself.

In any case, the discussion itself merits the close attention Abbasov has paid it.

Those taking part in the discussion, he says, have pointed out that President Ilham Aliyev very much wants his country to be part of the Muslim world that has good ties with the West rather than part of it with bad relations not only with the West in general but with Israel in particular.

Moreover, given Baku’s close relations with Turkey, the nature of Islam in Azerbaijan has become more important for Aliyev following the victory of the more religious party of Erdogan in Turkey. Consequently, to the extent that Baku wants to underscore its ties with Ankara, it now must focus on religion as well as nationality.

And, according to the discussants, Baku views the primary supporters of Shiia Islam in Azerbaijan to be the Talysh and Tats, two Irano-language speaking nations who do not share Aliyev’s Turkic centric view of Azerbaijani identity. Indeed, much of the recent crackdown in Shiia Muslims in Azerbaijan has been directed against members of these two groups.

But perhaps most intriguingly, at least one person taking part in these discussions recalled that Heydar Aliyev, the father of the current Azerbaijani president, wanted to send into retirement Allashakhyur Pasha-zade, the Shiite head of the Administration of Muslims of Azerbaijan, because Pasha-zade was Talysh by origin.

Heydar Aliyev didn’t take that step because of Pasha-zade’s influence in the North Caucasus and elsewhere, but if his son is going to try to shift Azerbaijan from the Shiite to the Sunni camp, it is entirely likely that he will seek to oust Pasha-zade and possibly even disband his administrative structure.


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Paul Goble

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

2 thoughts on “Is Baku Transforming Azerbaijan From A Shiia To A Sunni Muslim Country? – OpEd

  • March 1, 2017 at 4:40 pm
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    Pardon me, the US FP establishment is very fond of barking very loudly at the status of the Church of Armenia in the RoA. Why is it that such blatant interference in the religious liberties and choices of Azerbaijani citizens is met by nothing other than silence from official Washington and it falls for people like Goble to comment on. It is indeed welcome to see this narrative from Mr. Goble, considering his previous work for the government in Baku.

    Reply
  • March 2, 2017 at 3:40 am
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    This article is a complete non-sense, the author’s work at the regime ran institution has clouded his understanding.

    Apart from the fact that the article peddles the Sunni-Shia divide and conquer narrative in a press release/PR form, rather than being a proper analysis, all of its assumptions are based on illusions.

    Pashazade has ZERO respect among the religious community in Azerbaijan, discussing him as some sort of a religious figure is laughable, as people in Azerbaijan always viewed him as a state bureaucrat, nothing more.

    A simple observation of mass Ashura rallies in Azerbaija, which even the Soviet occupation could not eradicate, will show that Azerbaijan is far from becoming a Sunni state. Plus, Azerbaijan is a kleptocracy of unmatched proportions where strategic policies are not a priority for the ruling regime.What Goble is proposing, requires a competent government cadre with an ideological worldview, neither of which is present in Azerbaijan. Sorry Mr. Goble, Israel’s dream will remain just that, a dream.

    Reply

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