Azerbaijan and the Hijab Ban: A new Kemalist nightmare?

Azerbaijan and the Hijab Ban: A new Kemalist nightmare?

8th February 2003

Background to contemporary Azerbaijan

Following the devastating war with Armenia, Azerbaijan witnessed during the 1990s inter-secular rivalries in the competition for power. Successive coups and counter-coups became an almost annual occurrence. The undoubted beneficiary of this instability has been Azerbaijan’s current president, Heydar Aliyev, himself the product of a 1992 coup. Aliyev over the last decade has consolidated and reinforced his power through successive rigged Soviet-style elections and referendums (the term ‘elected dictator’ is pertinent) and the purging of perceived opponents in state and security apparatus. Furthermore, Aliyev has directed special intelligence and police units to carry out harassment and arbitrary detentions of civilian political opponents and independent journalists. Added to these events are concerns over systematic torture and deaths in detention and the absence of due process.

Azerbaijan’s economy remains depressed. With spiralling poverty and widespread unemployment, public discontent is mounting. Widespread corruption amongst the oligarchs, patronage as the accepted way of business, and the failure to implement wide-reaching socio-economic reforms, has added to Azerbaijan’s economic woes.

Hijab ban: Ataturk and his illegitimate children haunt Azerbaijan

Perhaps the most worrying facet of Aliyev’s regime has been the accelerated Kemalist-style programme of secularisation, predictably aimed at Islam, which 95+% of Azerbaijan’s population adheres to. From 1992 onwards an emergent policy of Turkism oriented towards the ideals of Kemalism began to emerge. Religious intolerance is the new state mantra. The secular authorities’ relationship with religious organisations has been one of arrests and censorship. Religious freedoms have been violated. The citizen’s choice has been disregarded. Examples

  • Minister of Education issues prohibition banning girls from wearing traditional headscarf at educational institutions. Also opposed the introduction of religious studies into the secondary school curriculum, despite its welcome by many human rights organisations
  • Minister of Interior refuses to issue passports to women wearing headscarf. Later overruled by court decision
  • Azerbaijan’s only prominent Islamist political party, Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, has been banned and its leadership arrested.

The unpleasant experience of Ataturk’s secularist experiment in Turkey provides the inspiration for Azerbaijan’s Kemalist secularists. In Turkey the hijab has become one of the most contentious issues. Secular law has banned the wearing of hijab in public and educational institutions, with hundreds of girls being expelled and many arrested. Azerbaijan’s secularists are seemingly prepared to emulate this. With the increase in observance of the hijab, it seems that the aspirations of Muslim girls and those of the anti-hijab secularists clash.

The secularists have expressed the desire to control every facet of Azerbaijan’s religious life, to censor any vestiges of Islam. The special creation of the overburdening ‘State Committee on working with Religious Organisations,’ (SCWRO) illustrates this desire. On the purpose of the hijab ban, SCWRO head, Rafik Aliev, stated, “We are talking about the attributes of a secular state, which are accepted by the whole world.” Aliev’s statement reveals a Kemalist-like desire to eradicate any manifestations of Muslim identity in Azerbjaini public life. The approach of SCWRO and its ominous head has been defined by its excessive secular zeal. SCWRO has attempted to de-register many religious organisations, designed measures to inhibit the proliferation of mosques, and has enacted the closure of Muslim primary schools.

Marginalisation of the Opposition and Concerns over Electoral Malpractice

A large number of political prisoners languish in prison, often under harsh conditions. Whilst the government denies their existence, the ‘Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan’ estimates that there around 670 political prisoners.

The opposition has been significantly marginalised, leading it to become largely ineffectual. This process has been threefold. Firstly, the arbitrary detention of opposition leaders and the disruption of opposition events. The main opposition parties, such as the Musavat Party, Justice Party, Azerbaijan National Independence Party and Popular Front have all had their activities curtailed. Secondly, the independent media, especially those with opposition sympathies, have come under sustained attack. Closures of newspapers are a frequent occurrence. Arrests of journalists have taken place. Examples include Shahbaz Khuduoglu, editor of Milletin Sesi, and Elmar Huseynov, founder of Bakinsky Boulevard. Physical violence against journalists has reached worrying levels. The Committee to Protect Journalists has catalogued over 150 violent incidences. A favourite weapon of the state has been the vindictive use of lawsuits, often on frivolous grounds. This is little more than another form of intimidation through accusations of defamation and libel. Thirdly, with the upcoming October 2003 presidential elections, a repeat of the controversial 2002 Referendum and the 2000 parliamentary elections is expected. The former was particularly controversial in that attempted to enforce constitutional changes to allow Aliyev to hand over power to his son, whilst the latter elicited a boycott by opposition groups in protest against state malpractice. Both were characterised by severe irregularities, electoral fraud (false counting and ballot stuffing, amongst other malpractices were detected) and cases of intimidation against independent electoral observers. With a suffocating executive, a timid and emasculated legislature, and a corrupted judiciary which is little more than another arm of the Presidential office, accountability is unsurprisingly absent from the political dictionary. One can find its entry crossed out with the Aliyev autocratic pen of disapproval. Already, the run up to the October 2003 elections has seen state intimidation in full swing against the political opposition and independent media.

Torture and Detention

Despite being a signatory to the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as similar obligations through membership of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the government’s human rights record is poor. Torture, ill-treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention and denial of fair trial remain serious problems in Azerbaijan. The police act with impunity, with disciplinary action a rare occurrence. Examples of torture and death in detention:

  • In November 2000, following demonstrations in Sheki, police detain a 61-year old woman, who was exposed to torture to extract confessions of participation in the demonstration.
  • In May 2001, a 28-year old man, Ilqar Djavadov, was arrested for failure to produce ID. Died in police custody as a result of repeated beatings. Police officers attempted to extract a bribe from his wife in return for his release.


IHRC condemns Aliyev and his government’s enforced secularisation programme and its reductive nature, as detrimental to the long-term interests of the Azerbaijani people. The government’s action over hijab is representative of its stifling of Azerbaijan’s Islamic faith and the severe curtailment of political opposition and independent media. These measures have impeded the emergence of a viable civil society. To have societal coherency, to prevent a Karimov-style Uzbekistan or a Niyazov-defined Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan must re-admit its Muslim inclinations into state and societal structures and practices, reform obtrusions like the SCWRO, and seek a path to a freer and hopefully more prosperous society. Meaningful international criticism has been conspicuously silent.

IHRC’s fear for Azerbaijani society and identity is that the journey along the empty road to outright Kemalism that Aliyev’s government has embarked on is the road to greater repression. There may be no end to this road or to the policies that it may initiate. IHRC fears that it may possibly end up in a Turkey-style repression, or possibly reach the levels of oppression that prevails in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.