Islamist threat in Azerbaijan

Islamist threat in Azerbaijan

The murder of Rafig Tagi, an Azerbaijani journalist critical of Islam and the Iranian regime, highlighted the threat of violent Islamism in Azerbaijan. Tagi was stabbed to death in mid-November 2011 in Baku.

Although no one has been apprehended in connection with the murder so far, most signs point to Iranian connection: Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani, a powerful cleric, called for Tagi´s death for alleged “apostasy” in a fatwa issued in 2007. Immediately after Tagi’s death, the son of the Ayatollah Lankarani praised the assassins.

Earlier in 2011, another influential Iranian ayatollah, Makarem Shirazi, threatened to declare holy war on Azerbaijani leaders if they persisted in pursuing policies seen as anti-Islamic, such as the hijab ban in schools and the closing of mosques.

The Azerbaijani government is cognizant of the threat posed by religious extremism, but its reaction has often been a counterproductive mix of heavy-handedness and appeasement. The authorities reacted with violence to the protests of some believers against the hijab ban in schools. In contrast, those who made death threats against Rafig Tagi were never prosecuted. This only encouraged extremists to become more assertive: in December 2011, during the Ashura, a holy day for Shiite Muslims, around 15,000 people in the village of Nardaran, some 40 km from Baku, chanted slogans against the government’s “pro-Zionist” policies.

While there is little doubt that at least some of the Islamist activity in Azerbaijan is fueled from abroad, notably Iran, Baku needs to urgently address its internal vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the extremists. The time has come to deal head-on with the problem of Nardaran, an Islamist enclave that the authorities have, inexplicably, allowed to fester for decades. This includes both security measures against radical rabble-rousers and enhanced economic and social development of the area. The authorities also have to find a more subtle way of dealing with the conservative believers – the heavy emphasis on forceful methods only pushes them into extremists’ hands. And, as in other countries with a majority Muslim population, pervasive corruption and lack of political freedoms draw an increasing number of dissenters to the mosque.

Some readjustments are needed in Baku’s foreign policy too. Azerbaijan has traditionally adhered to rigid non-interference in states’ internal affairs as a guiding principle of international relations. But in order to protect its citizens from future fatwas of Iranian clerics, it should lead an international effort to pressure Iran to remove from its laws any provisions that justify the murders of apostates in Iran and abroad. To this end, Baku has to work with key regional and international players with leverage on Tehran, such as Turkey, Russia and China. It should also use its newly acquired diplomatic clout as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to advance this goal. Of course, to be credible, Azerbaijan should substantially improve its own human rights record. A good way to start would be to let international monitors to investigate the situation of the alleged political prisoners in the country.

Azerbaijan will never be completely immune to the Islamist threat. This threat would diminish if Iran were to embark on a more liberal trajectory. Given the profound discontent with the ruling theocratic system, such a change will come to Iran, sooner or later. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani government should take all precautions to safeguard the secular nature of the republic. That also means protecting those citizens, who, like Rafig Tagi, incur the wrath of ayatollahs by speaking their mind.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament and writes in a personal capacity.