By Paul Goble
Allashukyur Pashazade, sheikh ul-Islam and head of the Baku-based Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus (AMC), has sharply criticized the creation of an independent Administration of Muslims of Georgia (AMG), as the latest example of the nationalist course set by President Mikhail Saakashvili.
The sheikh said that the decision of “official Tbilisi” was “incorrect,” adding that in his view, “behind the establishment of this organization stands the idea of ‘Greater Armenia” and saying that he deeply regretted that “part of the ethnic Azerbaijani officials” in Georgia support the new body (www.regnum.ru/news/polit/1405007.html).
However that may be, the efforts of Georgians to have their own Muslim organization are but the latest example of numerous problems involved in squaring religious and national borders in the post-Soviet states, ones that bedevil the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine and Abkhazia but that is nowhere more complicated than in the south Caucasus.
The AMC was established in Soviet times as one of four Muslims Spiritual Directorates (MSDs), but unlike the other three, the Baku institution had a double task. On the one hand, it was responsible for Shiite communities throughout the USSR. And on the other, it had administrative responsibility for Muslim parishes in the Caucasus as a whole.
Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Pashazade, who has been in office since 1980, has sought to continue to exercise the powers involved in each of these responsibilities, although he has been under pressure to yield on both counts and has in fact given way to other newer Muslim bodies.
The sheikh ul-Islam has insisted that he, the only Shiite leader of a supra-national MSD, is still responsible for all Shiite communities across the former Soviet space, although his position has been challenged by others, including most recently Ravil Gainutdin, the head of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR).
And while he has de facto yielded to the new MSDs in the post-Soviet North Caucasus, Pashazade has sought to maintain the powers implied in the name of the institution he heads, especially with regard to neighboring Georgia, where the majority of Muslims are ethnic Azerbaijanis, although many of them are Sunni rather than Shiia.
The Baku sheikh noted on Monday that he has exercised his authority in Georgia through a special division of the AMC, which was “created in 1996 at the request of [former Georgian] President Shevardnadze” and which continues to function under the direction of Ali Aliyev, a citizens of Georgia.
That makes the creation of the Georgian body a particular threat to his dignity and influence. Details about the AMG are still sketchy, particularly with regard to how many of the Muslim parishes in Georgia, ethnic Azerbaijani or otherwise, recognize its authority. But some details are offered in the just released issue of “NG-Religii.”
In an essay entitled, “The Shiites and Sunnis Divide Georgia,” Lidiya Orlova reports that the AMG was created last week, with Sunni Mufti Dzhamal Bagshadze becoming its leader with the avowed purposes of “achieving independence from the AMC” and “uniting under its control the Muslim communities of Georgia” (religion.ng.ru/events/2011-05-18/3_gruzia.html).
Ali Aliyev, the AMC representative in Georgia, insisted that the announcement of the new group would have little effect and that in his words, “the mosques in Georgia will continue their activity and continue to be subordinate to the AMC.” That is especially true because there is no legal basis for the new national AMG.
According to Aliyev, “the creators of such a structure must be representatives of the religion and spiritual persons. [But in this case] there is not one spiritual person; they are civil people, and certain [of those involved in fact] work in government structures.” And he added that in the AMG leadership as of now, “there is not a single [ethnic] Azerbaijani.”
“At the same time,” Orlova continues, “Aliyev is not inclined to see a political subtext to the appearance of the new spiritual administration” because Tbilisi in general and President Saakashvili in particular “constantly declare their friendship with Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani people.”
But if Aliyev does not view this action as political, Araz Alizade, the vice president of the Social Democratic Party of Azerbaijan is sure that it is. He told Regnum that “behind the creation of the AMG stands the Georgian government” which is trying in every possible way “to separate Azerbaijanis living in Georgia from Azerbaijan.”