In September 2020 war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. It lasted approximately six weeks and resulted in Azerbaijan regaining control over the vast majority of the territories it lost during the previous war in the 1990s. Although in their appeals to the international community the secular Azerbaijani government and local Muslim leaders insisted that this war had no religious dimension[i], during the hostilities Islamic religious symbols and rituals were nevertheless routinely used by the authorities. At first glance it would seem that this was done in order to reignite Azerbaijanis’ religious sentiments as  part of a broader strategy to mobilize public opinion behind the government’s war efforts. However, that is not the whole story. First of all, the majority of the Azerbaijani population is secular and religious slogans can hardly be said to possess significant mobilization power for them. Moreover, virtually every segment of Azerbaijani society with few exceptions supported the war regardless of the appeals to their religious sentiments. Most importantly, an appeal to Islamic slogans was not even necessary to rally local Islamists to the war cause. Independent and informal Islamists – activists who do not recognize the organizational and/or spiritual authority of the semi-official Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) – have always been proponents of war. In 2014, the informal leader of Azerbaijani Salafis Gamet Suleimanov declared that the war in Karabakh was a jihad, i.e. a holy war, and any Azerbaijanis killed in this conflict should be considered Islamic martyrs.[ii] Informal Shi’is went even further by fiercely criticizing the government for not resuming war to liberate occupied Karabakh.

So, the question is: were there any other rationales behind such intensive references to Islam by the government during the six-week war? We will argue that it was part of a broader policy which was intensified recently, the aim of which is to dominate Islamic discourse within the country and seize supremacy in this area primarily from informal Shi’i activists, the majority of whom have always either actively or tacitly opposed Azerbaijani authorities.

Background

Traditionally, since the early 1990s, independent and oppositional Shi’i religious clerics and organizations have been zealous proponents of war with Armenia and used the Karabakh issue to criticize Azerbaijani authorities. Many of them, including the Islamic Party[iii] or the famous head of the Juma Mosque community Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoghlu,[iv] regularly compared Karabakh and Palestine in their speeches at public events. Iranian circles patronizing informal Shi’i organizations in Azerbaijan have also been active in promoting the resumption of war. Seyyid Hasan Amili, for instance, a famous Imam-Juma in the Iranian city of Ardabil, vowed to come and fight in Karabakh[v] and frequently raised the issue of Karabakh in his sermons. Iranian religious circles organized multiple conferences and exhibitions[vi] with such titles as “The Place of Nagorno-Karabakh in Islamic Resistance Literature and Poetry.”[vii]

In the past, however, preachers — especially Shi’is — who were more loyal to the government usually tried to avoid the topic of Karabakh, or when they spoke about it they employed a more conciliatory tone and portrayed the role of religion as the ultimate peacebuilder, furiously denying that there is any religious dimension to the conflict.

Yet the situation has changed since 2019 when even Shi’i circles aligned with the Azerbaijani government when it started using a more belligerent tone in regard to the conflict with Armenia. In its fatwa on the occasion of the Muharram commemorations, which are sacrosanct for Shi’is worldwide,  the CMB urged believers to “remember our martyrs in sermons and pray for the liberation of our lands from occupation.”[viii]  Unlike the first summit of world religious leaders held in Baku in 2016,[ix] no invitation was extended to the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church Karekin II to attend the second summit held in 2019.[x] In an interview with the State News Agency of Azerbaijan the head of the CMB Sheikh al-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade also criticized the head of the Armenian Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia Aram I, based in Lebanon, for the latter’s “provocative statement”[xi] calling for the unification of Karabakh with Armenia.[xii] Usually scrupulously careful in his wording, Haji Shahin Hasanli, the charismatic and popular Shi’i preacher now representing the Sheikh al-Islam in one of the districts of the capital Baku, spoke explicitly about the importance of revenge and the inevitability of a future war with Armenia in a speech at an event commemorating the victims of the Khojaly massacre committed by the Armenian military in 1992.[xiii] Articles penned by pro-government activists appeared in the local media describing Muharram commemorations as an instrument “to instill determination and irreconcilability against the enemy” and as “the most effective part of the military-patriotic propaganda to regain Karabakh.”[xiv]  This trend continued in early 2020 with rising intensity. During the yearly commemorations of the tragic events of January 20, 1990, when Soviet troops entered Baku to quell anti-government protests which resulted in the death of more than one hundred civilians,[xv] and the anniversary of the aforementioned Khojaly massacre of 1992,[xvi] the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA) organized multiple events called “Love of Motherland and Martyrdom”[xvii] in various regions of Azerbaijan.

Hijacking the Discourse from Informal Activists

In late September 2020, Azerbaijan launched a military offensive to regain territories in Karabakh lost in the 1990s. On September 29, 2020, the semi-official leader of Azerbaijani Muslims Sheikh al-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade appealed to the public, urging everyone to unite behind the president during the ongoing “patriotic war and to end the thirty-year occupation of our lands.”[xviii] Throughout the war the use of Islamic identity became one of the most visible features of the government’s discourse. Islamic rituals were symbolically used to seal the military’s victories and the re-taking of cities from Armenian troops. One of the first news stories distributed by pro-government media in Jabrail, the first city liberated by the Azerbaijani army, was that “the first adhan (Muslim call for prayer) had been delivered in Jabrail after 27 years of occupation.”[xix] The trend continued in other cities retaken from Armenia, such as mountainous Shusha. The president’s appeal proved that this symbolic gesture was a calculated government policy.[xx] During trips to recaptured territories after the end of hostilities, the president and his wife — the first vice-president of the country — visited several mosques and the speeches made by the president there were widely shared by the state media.

As outlined above, informal Islamic activism — especially Shi’i — has always been in opposition to the secular government, and for some time the authoritarian Azerbaijani regime — which by nature does not tolerate independent activity and aims to control and steer every kind of public conversation in the country — has been pursuing a policy to seize dominance in Islamic discourse from informal activists. The war provided a chance to weigh in more heavily in this discourse and capture dominance in religious rhetoric from informal Islamists. We assume that it was this intention, rather than an attempt to galvanize the religious sentiments of the wider public, that was the primary rationale behind the ruling elite’s focus on Islamic rhetoric. That is why one of the president’s most “Islamic” speeches happened not during the military clashes, but afterwards when the hostilities ended, the ceasefire agreement was signed, and Russian peacekeepers entered the region. In this speech delivered in the ruins of the recently recovered city of Aghdam, the president made the following remarks:

“Today, in front of the mosque destroyed by vandals, I am saying that I am a happy man. I thank Allah again for hearing my prayers and giving me this strength… I am happy to have visited Mecca four times, once with my late father and three times as president. I am happy that I prayed with my family inside the Holy Kaaba. I have the same feelings in my heart as everyone else. My first prayer was for the liberation of our lands from occupation. I asked God to give me the strength to liberate our lands from the occupiers, to give us this happiness and to return to the land of our ancestors”.[xxi]          

The fact that Azerbaijani authorities used the opportunity provided by the war to accelerate their policy of domesticating Islam is seen in another development as well. During the war the state media widely reported “the first joint Juma prayer of both Sunni and Shi’i soldiers at the historic Govhar Agha Mosque since its liberation” in Shusha.[xxii] Traditionally Azerbaijani Shi’is and Sunnis perform their prayers separately at different times according to their respective theology. However, the Azerbaijani government’s religious policy prioritizes a so-called “united Azerbaijani Islam” discourse which since 2019 has imposed on religious groups loyal to the government the obligation to perform this kind of joint prayer between Sunnis and Shi’is. But this relative novelty along with other practices imposed to “standardize Islam” are not well-received by informal activists. They have resisted the multiple measures aiming to unify Islamic rituals, which are politically motivated and dictated by secular authorities. Yet, for a variety of reasons, including fear of government reprisals, they do not resist this government policy openly. Most importantly, these procedures implemented by the government are appreciated and supported by the nominally Muslim secular majority of the society, making it difficult for devoted believers to challenge this government policy outspokenly. In addition, an imagined Islamic unity is a concept promoted by informal activists themselves and vocal objection would not be easy to explain to the wider Azerbaijani public with limited knowledge of Sharia. Nevertheless, believers held separate religious events in the retaken cities as well.[xxiii] The military success was so resounding that even relentless critics of the government, such as currently jailed Shi’i activist and preacher Haji Tale Baghirzadeh, congratulated the Azerbaijani state and people on the occasion of victory.[xxiv] Nevertheless, unlike leaders of the secular-nationalist opposition,[xxv] in his congratulatory letter sent from prison, Baghirzadeh fell short of mentioning president Aliyev personally.

Blame the West

Criticizing the West has always been one of the main rallying points of Islamic activism. And the Azerbaijani ruling elite in its struggle to win over the hearts and minds of Muslim believers started to compete with informal activists in this discourse as well. Frequent attacks on Europe for its alleged Islamophobia were a part of this policy.[xxvi] This style of attacks by the government particularly intensifies when the West raises objections against human rights abuses, pressure on independent media, and crackdowns on the opposition and civil society in Azerbaijan.[xxvii]

During the recent war such accusations were made again by the Azerbaijani authorities, primarily when representatives of Western countries expressed their concerns over the fate of Christian monuments in war zones and territories recaptured by the Azerbaijani side. In fact, during the war both sides of the conflict traded accusations over the destruction and alteration of their religious and cultural heritage by their adversary. Already in 2019 the head of the SCWRA Mubariz Gurbanli, in an interview where he accused Armenians of altering and damaging the historic Govher-Agha (Gövhər-Ağa) mosque in Shusha under the pretext of renovation, claimed that hundreds of historic-religious sites had been destroyed by the Armenian side in Karabakh.[xxviii] The SCWRA reported that there were 67 mosques in then Armenian-controlled Karabakh[xxix] of which 63 had been destroyed.[xxx] When hostilities started in September these accusations intensified from both sides, attracting the attention of the domestic and international public. Azerbaijan interpreted the issue as a deliberate Armenian anti-Islamic policy.  In his interview in late October 2020 the deputy head of the SCWRA Gunduz Ismayilov claimed that “the complete destruction of the Turkic-Islamic heritage was part of a calculated Armenian religious policy in occupied Karabakh.”[xxxi] During the war the Azerbaijani side released multiple photos and videos accusing Armenians of desecrating mosques.[xxxii] The Azerbaijani president claimed that the “destruction of our historic and religious heritage is a crime against the whole Muslim world.”[xxxiii] Following suit, Azerbaijan’s state media aired a TV discussion called “Vandalism against mosques is a crime against the whole Muslim world.”[xxxiv]

The Azerbaijani president used this discourse to reiterate his criticism of Western countries as well. In the following speech he was particularly furious:

“The leaders of Western countries which ignite Islamophobic sentiments, those who have turned a blind eye to the insults of Islam and even justified those who are insulting it… have no right to talk about it… Why didn’t certain Western leaders express their concern? Does this mean that Muslim mosques can be insulted, cows and pigs can be kept [there] and [the mosques can] be destroyed? If so, let them say so, let them deal with the problems in their countries and not interfere in our work. Let no one interfere in our work. We have come here ourselves. We have come here in spite of the efforts of all those countries. We have come in spite of all the provocations. We have shed blood and we are standing on our land. Let everyone mind their own business.”[xxxv]

Although in this speech the president lashed out at the West, his words were intended for the domestic audience, to whom they sounded plausible. During the war when the public’s nationalistic fervor reached its highest point, this populist speech resonated well with Azerbaijanis, who were angry at the West for allegedly not supporting their righteous cause, as they see it, and earned the president approval from across the aisle domestically. At the same time Aliyev knows that his relationship with the West is secured by geopolitical interests, energy policy, and the power of oil money. He is sure that he can reignite the anti-Western sentiments of the local public without significant objection from the West itself.

The Most Devoted Muslim

As we saw during the war, Azerbaijani authorities tried to secure international backing from Muslim countries. The main activity of Azerbaijani Islamic institutions was to attract international support for the Azerbaijani cause from the Muslim world. The Shi’i believer community was under particular pressure due to the widely accepted perception of the general Azerbaijani public that Iran is an ally of Armenia.[xxxvi] The CMB’s leadership and other Muslim organizations worked hard to obtain supportive statements from Muslim clerics and institutions. The website of the CMB and other religious sites regularly informed the public of multiple declarations supportive of Azerbaijan in the war, among them statements and letters from Iranians like Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi[xxxvii] and Qom Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Alireza Arafi.[xxxviii] According to the CMB’s website, these kinds of letters were received from religious leaders and organizations from around the world, including the Qatar-backed International Union for Muslim Scholars,[xxxix] the Higher Islamic Council of Algeria,[xl] the Al-Khoei Foundation in the USA,[xli] and many others.[xlii] A statement of support for the Azerbaijani cause (according to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs) from the Supreme leader of Iran Grand Ayatollah Khamenei was met with a particularly warm response from Azerbaijani officials[xliii].

After the hostilities ended, however, when Aliyev visited Agdam after it had been recently vacated by Armenian troops, he lashed out at Iran for its friendly relationship with Armenia and for the participation of Iranian organizations in supervising or carrying out the renovation and reconstruction of a mosque in Shusha while it was under Armenian control.[xliv] Aliyev said:

“This renovation is a symbol of hypocrisy, merely to create the impression that the Armenian authorities renovate mosques. Unfortunately, a company from a [certain] country was involved in dozens of these ugly deeds… Armenia cannot be a friend of Muslim countries, a country which has destroyed and desecrated mosques cannot be friendly with Muslim countries. This is hypocrisy and accepting Armenia as a friend is hypocrisy and godlessness as well. How can Muslim countries befriend those who destroyed this mosque? Let them bare responsibility and answer these questions. I do not need their answers. They should answer before their own people. How can they make friendship with those who have destroyed mosques and desecrated them by allowing cows inside? Let the people of those Muslim countries answer these questions”.[xlv]

Conclusion

As we have seen Islamic discourse was widely used by the Azerbaijani authorities during the recent war with Armenia. It was used to garner domestic support for the war, to earn allies in the Islamic world, and to discredit Armenia in the eyes of Muslim world. However, my conclusion is that the utmost priority was not using Islam for the purposes of war. Instead, more significantly authorities exploited the opportunities provided by the war to advance the policies of the government in the realm of Islam. This policy aims to domesticate Islam, lessen the dependency of Azerbaijani Muslims on foreign influence, and put it in the service of the ruling elite. To gather support as the caretaker of Islam, the government works hard to promote itself as its most zealous champion in the eyes of the local Muslim community. For this reason, authorities attack the imagined Islamophobic West and other foreign detractors, including Muslim ones.

Yet the domestic success of this policy which also aims to some extent to reform Sharia and create an Azerbaijani version of Islam is hardly achievable. The policy of domesticating Islam, imposed from above, instead of achieving harmony may trigger an even more profound division between the state and informal Muslim activists. In the current situation, in which discontent with the authoritarian and corrupt government will certainly grow, an official religion promoted by this kind of government will hardly be attractive or authoritative for devoted believers. This means that official Islam may face the rising opposition of informal Islam, which has a better chance of earning the sympathies of the part of the population critical of the government.

 

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