Could This Be ISIL's Next Target?
Could ISIL gain traction in Azerbaijan? Amid the welter of analyses about ISIL in Syria and Iraq, little attention has been paid to the potential impact of ISIL or other Islamic extremist movements in another important area--namely, the strategically sensitive south Caucasus region and especially energy-rich Azerbaijan. The anti-ISIL plan for a Kurdish autonomous entity has even greater implications for the south Caucasus and its several secessionist movements.
First, the matter of ISIL. Located just northeast of Iraq, Azerbaijan has a mostly Shi’ite population with a Sunni minority. The state is secular, but President Ilham Aliyev has raised the specter of Islamic extremists in the north where his country borders Russia along the Caucasus Mountains. Twenty-six alleged fighters for Islamist groups, ISIL among them, were arrested last week on their return to Azerbaijan.
Is Azerbaijan an Iraq-in-the-making? How real is the threat? How can we tell?
Azerbaijan is unlike Iraq in numerous meaningful ways. Neither religious identity nor rhetoric has been a factor in Azerbaijani politics for over a century. The leader of one Azerbaijani opposition party commented that sectarian politics like those in Iraq are “primitive.” The population of Azerbaijan though mostly Shi’ite is Turkic. Its history of Shi’ite-Sunni cooperation, societal modernization and emergent secularism goes back to the 19th century. Azerbaijan’s reformers achieved short-lived victory in their republic of 1918-20.
The arrival of the Bolsheviks in April 1920 led to the imposition of violent, if sporadic, anti-religious campaigns, which were distinct from the evolutionary secularizing efforts of the native elites. Thus, the comparison between today’s Azerbaijan and Iraq, where secularism was imposed mainly by the Ba’ath party since the late 1960s, shows the greater longevity and depth of secular life in Azerbaijan. Tolerance of religious difference, especially in Baku, is shown not merely by the presence but by the growth over time of such non-native groups as the Jewish community which grew rapidly in the early 20th century as Jews fled pogroms in Russian and Ukraine. It remains active today. The disappearance of the Baku’s long-established Armenian community and closing of its church can be traced to the bitter and unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabagh rather than a general intolerance of Christians. Overall, religious expression is considered a personal matter in Azerbaijan, and in society as a whole, people who attend a mosque or wear the hijab are neither feared nor ostracized.
At the same time, it would be premature to suggest that Azerbaijan is immune from Islamist appeals. The Sunni population in the north can hardly be insulated against the radicalism of the north Caucasus, but the nature of the spill-over remains murky. Some experts have suggested that sectarian conflicts in the region have encouraged or deepened divisions within Azerbaijani society, especially in rural areas. But hard evidence is illusive.
The Aliyev regime’s designation of all sorts of religious people and groups as Wahabbis or Salafis is unhelpful. Religious individuals are persecuted without differentiation. Such broad-brush treatment impedes efforts to get a clear reading on the type and depth of political uses of Islam and the potential for future radicalism among Azerbaijanis. Piety does not make a Muslim a radical.
If an extreme Islamist faction did exist, it would not have to be large to be dangerous. Two factors could make it more dangerous. First, discontent born of poverty or injustice feeds radicalism. Despite oil wealth and the modernization of Baku, lingering economic, social and political inequality contribute to Azerbaijan’s vulnerability to Islamist appeals. Outside central Baku, poverty is evident. People with Soviet-era educations cannot take advantage of jobs in new industries and often cannot provide better education for their children.
How many are affected? What are their alternatives? Is there an emerging middle class, as the regime insists? Data on these matters are not sufficient or sufficiently reliable to draw a definitive conclusion. Bribery is endemic, and citizens report pressure to give bribes even to get low-level jobs. A perception that the regime is corrupt and unjust can push the populace toward a traditional pole of morality, religion. Radical leaders could take advantage of such a climate, and Azerbaijan’s ruling circles are missing opportunities to address these problems.
Second, a regime that quashes open discussion and even mild dissent is cutting off peaceful discourse and thereby fostering extremism. Recent years have been marked by increasing government repression including the marginalization of the genuinely democratic opposition parties. Their offices and publications have been pushed out of the city center or shut down. Election rallies have been blocked. Parliamentary elections of 2010, which were deemed by international observers to be neither free nor fair, led to the complete exclusion of opposition parties from the National Assembly. With the failure of the democratic opposition to protect itself, much less effect needed change, popular interest in Islamist groups cannot be ruled out.