By Paul Goble
“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.