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Azerbaijan: Is Opposing Islam More Dangerous Than Criticizing Government?

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By Khadija Ismayilova

Azerbaijani writers and civil society activists are expressing concern about what they describe as dwindling space for public discourse on the role of Islam in Azerbaijan.

The catalyst for concern was the late November murder of Rafig Tagi, an essayist outspokenly critical of Islam and Iran. Tagi, a 61-year-old writer who had earlier served prison time for an article lambasting the Prophet Muhammad, died on November 23 from multiple knife wounds delivered by an unknown assailant in downtown Baku. In an interview with RFE/RL, given shortly before he died,Tagi blamed the attack on Iranian agents or Muslim fundamentalists outraged by two of his recent pieces.

The writer’s death has highlighted a growing division over what role Islamic beliefs should play in the country’s largely secular society. On social networks, a key forum for Azerbaijani public opinion, the full spectrum of opinion has been on display, ranging from outrage that Tagi died for expressing his views to joy that he met with “justice for insulting the prophet [Muhammad].”

At the same time, Tagi’s death seems to have had a chilling effect on advocates of religious liberty and freedom of speech. “This incident has already added to self-censorship in discussions on this issue,” said Emil Huseynov, the director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety. “Some people will not feel comfortable to talk about Islam. … Nevertheless, there are some people who are even more open in expressing their attitude to Islam.”

One of Azerbaijan’s most outspoken fiction writers, Ali Akbar, the author of a controversial novel about an Azerbaijani-Armenian homosexual couple, concedes that Tagi’s death already has prompted him to curb his criticism of those who espouse Islamist views. Opposing Islam is now more dangerous than opposing the government, he contended.

“I do express my views on what kind of changes I want to see in Azerbaijan, but I don’t feel free speaking about how Islam prevents Azerbaijan from making positive changes,” said Akbar, who describes himself as an atheist. “And the reason for that is not only the threat from Islamists, but also the possibility that the government of Azerbaijan will misuse these radical sentiments.”

From the destruction of allegedly illegally constructed mosques to an informal ban on wearing a hijab in state-funded schools and universities, Baku has come under increasing fire for its treatment of Azerbaijan’s growing numbers of active Muslim practitioners in what are described as further crackdowns on dissent.

In the wake of Tagi’s death, the confrontations of the past are contributing to an atmosphere that discourages any constructive dialogue about religion, moderates on both sides say.

“It is not clear who killed Rafig Tagi and for what reason, and even if it is related to someone’s feelings about religion, I am against blaming Islam for one incident,” asserted Altay Goyushev, a professor of theology at Baku State University who called the fatwas issued by Iranian ayatollahs for Tagi’s death “not fitting for the world’s modern standards.”

Imam Ilqar Ibrahimoglu, a human rights activist and chair of the Centre for the Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Religious Rights, agrees that the debate over Islam should continue, but notes that “after the recent incidents, we have observed more insults than discussion.”

“There should be discussion on any topic, including religion. This is a core of the freedom of expression,” he said. “Critics should be free in these discussions and everyone should be tolerant of criticism. But there should be no insult in the discussion. Everyone should condemn insults.”

The Baku-based Caucasus Muslims Department, which wields administrative authority over Islamic affairs in Azerbaijan, has not publicly commented on the issue. The government and ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party remain similarly silent.

An official autopsy showed that Tagi died from heart and lung failure linked to the stabbing. No arrests in connection with the killing have been made. In a December 22 statement, Azerbaijani General Prosecutor Zakir Garalov stressed that the Interior Ministry and his office are undertaking an “intensive” investigation of Tagi’s death. The comments came in response to European Parliament criticism of the Azerbaijani government’s response to the slaying.

Human and media rights organizations and Western governments have broadly condemned the attack as an assault on freedom of speech, and urged the Azerbaijani government to bring the perpetrator(s) to trial.

Meanwhile, Tagi’s death has opened divisions within Azerbaijan’s opposition. One such conflict could be seen at the December 3 session of the Public Chamber, a wide-ranging opposition alliance. Some Muslim believers at the meeting opposed a call to commemorate Tagi with a minute of silence, while secularists responded harshly to a proposal that Ashura, the Shi’ite commemoration of the death of Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein ibn Ali, the venerated Shia imam, should be a state holiday.

Whether or not such divisions will cause the opposition alliance to splinter remains an open question, but Ibrahimoglu cautions that, ultimately, Azerbaijan must look to itself to resolve the conflict about Tagi’s death and give dialogue a chance. “It depends on us how this turns out,” he said.

Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance reporter in Baku and hosts a daily program on current affairs broadcast by the Azeri Service of RFE/RL.

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Originally published at Eurasianet. Eurasianet is an independent news organization that covers news from and about the South Caucasus and Central Asia, providing on-the-ground reporting and critical perspectives on the most important developments in the region. A tax-exempt [501(c)3] organization, Eurasianet is based at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, one of the leading centers in North America of scholarship on Eurasia. Read more at eurasianet.org.

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