By Shahin Abbasov
Following violent clashes between police and Islamic activists in Baku in mid-February, the government has ordered all state employees to remove Islamic symbols from their offices, a source in Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs tells EurasiaNet.
Religious items such as the Koran and ayahs — the 6,236 Koran verses regarded by Muslims as divine revelations — increasingly have shared space in government offices with the Azerbaijani flag and portraits of President Ilham Aliyev and his father, the late president Heydar Aliyev.
A source in the Ministry of Internal Affairs who did not want to be named stated that officials have been ordered to remove such religious items from government offices, explaining that “Azerbaijan is a secular state and religion [ought to be kept] separate from the state.” The government has not yet commented officially on the issue.
The reported decision follows unexpected clashes on February 13 between about 100 Islamic activists and police in Baku that resulted in several injuries. Four activists who were detained have been charged with hooliganism and resisting police.
Rally organizers, members of the banned Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, a group widely perceived as pro-Iranian, claimed that the demonstration was staged to commemorate the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Mohammad. The city did not issue a permit for the demonstration.
Azerbaijan’s State Committee for Religious Affairs called the February 13 incident “a planned action aimed to raise confrontation in society and to undermine tolerance.” Three days later, Allahshukur Pashazadeh, head of the semi-official Caucasus Muslim Board, echoed that stance, condemning police violence against the group, but acknowledging the need for a rally permit.
Some analysts claim that Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor Iran had the most immediate interest in such a demonstration. Iranian television journalists filmed the protest, they noted, while local media outlets were not notified of protest plans in advance.
Rauf Mirgadirov, political columnist for the opposition-friendly daily Zerkalo (The Mirror), links the demonstration to Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s official visit to Baku on February 9-11 and to ex-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s unofficial February 15 visit. Azerbaijan’s ties with Israel have been an ongoing cause for complaint from Tehran.
“Obviously, Iran was unhappy with these visits; moreover, Lieberman’s visit occurred the same day as the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran,” Mirgadirov noted. Iranian media reported a protest by demonstrators outside Azerbaijan’s Tehran embassy on the day of Lieberman’s visit to Baku, he added.
President Aliyev and other high-ranking officials met with both Lieberman and Olmert. Topics for discussion with Lieberman included the import of Israeli military technology, local news agencies reported.
Akif Heydarli, a spokesman for Islamic Party rejected the allegation that it was “pro-Iranian” in orientation. “Our party is pro-Azerbaijani and pro-Islamic. We represent thousands of Azerbaijani citizens,” he said in an interview with EurasiaNet. Heydarli added that the party had organized a “defense committee” to assist those still in custody in connection with the February 13 protest.
Arif Yunusov, the Baku-based author of a work on Islam in Azerbaijan, believes that Iran is trying to use Azerbaijanis’ increased interest in Islam to exert influence. He cited the popular Iranian satellite television station Sahar, which broadcasts in Azeri, as a case in point. “Azerbaijani TV channels are censored, and broadcasting by the BBC, VOA and Radio Liberty was stopped. . . . Sahar has turned into the only source of alternative information for many people in Azerbaijan, especially in the provinces,” Yunusov said.
For now, Baku is showing no sign of wanting to confront Iran publicly on the protest, or any other issue. After February 20-22 meetings in Tehran with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other top Iranian officials, Azerbaijani Parliamentary Speaker Ogtay Asadov rebuffed as “populist” comments from one pro-government MP about the demonstration outside Azerbaijan’s Embassy.
“Azerbaijan should build good relations with Iran. We have 657 kilometers of common border and must have friendly relations,” local media outlets quoted Asadov as saying.
The government is showing similar caution toward the growing interest in Islam among many Azerbaijanis, some observers believe. The crackdown on religious symbols in government offices follows a string of controversies about the closure and demolition of mosques. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Human rights activist Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, imam of Baku’s Juma mosque community and head of the DEVAM human rights center, contends that the removal of the Koran and ayahs from government offices, if confirmed, poses “an assault on freedom of conscience.”
Political columnist Mirgadirov says the move suggests that the government worries that Islam’s influence could “become uncontrolled at some point.”
If so, those concerns are misplaced, believes religious analyst Yunusov. “Secular values are a priority for most of the country’s population,” he said. But clashes with religious demonstrators could prove a risky response, Yunusov added. “Violence creates a violent response,” he said.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.