When the conflict over the contested region of Ngorno-Karabakh erupted again after almost thirty years, people around the world, including Muslims, often viewed it through superficial lenses. Zviad Jughashvili argues that the influence of religion, specifically Islam and more particularly Shia Islam, has evolved in ways that Muslims and other nonregional observers have failed to understand.
Contrary to popular opinion the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenian nationalism is not a religious one. Religion plays a role for social mobilization on both sides, but it’s neither a catalyst or a driving force. The conflict is primarily territorial.
After Iran, Azerbaijan has the second largest proportion of Shia Muslims in the world – some 70 to 80 percent of population. This is something not known to most Muslims abroad, especially in the English-speaking world. Prior to being forcefully incorporated into the Russian empire and later into the Soviet Union, Azerbaijanis played a key historical role in the ascendancy of Shia Islam. The Safavid dynasty and Qizilbash were Azeri. Many contemporary Shia heavyweights like Ayatollah Khoei, Allamah Tabataba’I, to name just a few, are of Azeri ethnic background.
Another key fact that has been largely ignored so far by the mainstream media is that in addition to Karabakh, Armenian nationalist militias have occupied and ethnically cleansed seven other regions of Azerbaijan that border Karabakh. The recent clashes mostly took place in these additional regions. Most of Karabakh is still under the control of Armenian militias with the now added presence of Russian peacekeeping forces.
Astute analysis of the latest war in Karabakh by reputable policy centres concurs that Moscow won the latest Karabakh war without fighting it directly. Undoubtedly, Russia scored a major political victory. The other primary victor, a social winner so to say, is Shia Islam.
This article approaches the term Shia Islam more from a contemporary socio-political angle. It does not use Shia Islam strictly in its theological and jurisprudential meaning when discussing contemporary matters surrounding the Karabakh war.
What is the definition of Shia Islam in this analysis when referring to more contemporary issues surrounding the Karabakh war? The definition is contrarian.
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, imperialist power centres and their surrogates actively began defining “true Islam” as anything which blocks the expansion of the revolution. Whether a movement or individuals prayed with their hands folded or by their sides, mattered little so long as the Islamic revolution was pressured and opposed at a political level. Thus, any projection, empowerment and manifestation of Islam which does not challenge the narrative and the fundamental pillars of Imam Khomeini’s (RA) revived God-centric socio-political program is Shia Islam.
To make a practical point, if this author was to write a book on Islamic revival of the past century, Sayyid Qutb, Mauwlana Mawdudi, Ramadan Shalah, Fathi Shaqqi, Dr. Kalim Siddiqui, would not be differentiated from Ayatollah Shaheed Mohammed al-Baqir or Muqtada al-Sadr. Neither would Ayatollah Sadiq Shirazi, Yasir al-Habib or Subhi al-Tufayli differ from Abdulrahman Al-Sudais or Abdallah bin Bayyah. While being Sunni, figures like Mawdudi and Dr.Kalim were much closer to the Islamic vision of Qum and Tehran than Riyadh or Ankara. The same applies to the opposing side. While being Shia, figures like Ayatollah Sadiq Shirazi or Subhi al-Tufayli are more aligned with Riyadh’s vision of Islam in the modern world than with the vision of Qum or Najaf.
Karabakh wars & Islam
Those who have not lived through the first Karabakh war of the 1990s or are not familiar with the intimate details of the war, might be puzzled as to why Imam Khomeini (RA) or Sayyid Qutb are mentioned in relation to it. Hopefully the following analysis will demystify this matter.
Prior to moving to a more contemporary period and issues relating to the conflict in Karabakh, it should be kept in mind that in the Karabakh region itself, Shia Islam has very deep historical roots.
The author of this paper spoke to a few elderly locals from the Lachin region, who pointed out that the early Muslim migrants to the area were mainly persecuted Shia scholars escaping from Hijaz and other parts of the Arab world. The elders highlighted that the village of Hocaz is an Azerified pronunciation of Hijaz. Other villages very close to it are called Aligulu, meaning servant of Ali, a common Shia reference to their identity. A village near Aligulu is called Seyidler, meaning the Sayyids, a common general name given to the descendants from the Prophet Muhammad’s (AS) household.
During the first Karabakh war, religion played a crucial role in mobilising Armenian nationalists to fight for the occupation of Karabakh. In simplified terms, the Armenian narrative went as follows: Azerbaijan is a newly formed Muslim-Turkic state with a bloody historical relationship with Armenians from its very formation. Thus, Armenians, the people of the world’s first Christian state, must defend their community and land from being dominated by Muslims.
During the 1990s the Russian speaking press regularly published articles written about Armenian Christian seminary members on the battlefields in Karabakh. Thus, when right at the very start of the latest Karabakh war, a picture of an armed Armenian priest, Father Hovhannes, emerged holding a machinegun and popularized on the internet through Armenian users under the hashtag Faith & Power, it did not come as a surprise to those who had witnessed the Karabakh war of the 1990s.
In the 1990s, on the Azerbaijani side, religion played a cosmetic role. Newly independent Azerbaijan which had just seceded from the atheist Soviet Union, was only beginning to rediscover its Muslim identity.
Lack of ideological motivation created a shortage of young men willing to fight for Azerbaijan’s territorial sovereignty in the 1990s. Paying bribes to avoid being called out to the front was a common practice for those who could afford it. This is no longer the case. In the most recent conflict, mobilisation centres in Azerbaijan were overwhelmed by the number of volunteers willing to sign up for the front lines. When I spoke to one veteran of the Karabakh war of the 1990s, he expressed great pride and astonishment at the high levels of social motivation to join the war in comparison to the 1990s.
Thus, a question arises as to what has changed in Azeri society that now inspires millions to express their willingness to die for their state’s territorial sovereignty? After speaking to a few volunteers, veterans and viewing dozens of organically posted videos from the frontlines of the Karabakh war, Islam’s centrality as a social mobilisation force stands out.
The liberation of every village and town during the recent conflict was followed by the Azaan (Muslim Call to Prayer). Videos of Azerbaijani soldiers praying on the front lines and regularly narrating poems (latmiyah) in praise of the Imams of the Ahlul Bayt (AS) at the start of the latest war often confused some viewers. Some Azerbaijani social media users often assumed that the videos were fakes and hailed from Islamic Iran’s war against Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.
As the war went on, the Azerbaijani blogosphere and social media were flooded with videos of Azerbaijani soldiers remembering the Imams of Ahlul Bayt (AS). Even one of Azerbaijan’s well known atheist propagators, Vusal Mamedov was moved to tweet that while he is still an atheist, he cannot ignore the reality that it is Islam which mobilised the Azerbaijani armed forces and raised their fighting spirit.
Azerbaijan, Islam and Internal Dynamics
Those unfamiliar with Azerbaijan’s internal political dynamics might not see anything surprising. Most governments of Muslim states utilise Islam as a battle cry and a catalyst for social mobilisation. Despots like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qadhafi and Saudi royals, have all used Islam as a veneer. What is different in Azerbaijan is that the regime of the Aliyev family which has ruled Azerbaijan for more than 25 years, defines itself as a secular gatekeeper, safeguarding Azerbaijan from rolling “backwards” towards Islam.
During the Soviet era, the founder of the current regime, Geidar Aliyev, was a KGB General and a top-ranking communist official. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the Aliyevs usurped power and turned government into a family affair.
Islam’s role as a camouflage for a Baathist regime in Iraq or Libyan Arab Jamahiriya was a natural phenomenon, because at least on a ritualistic level, to the societies of those regimes, Islam was a fundamental part of their identity. In most Muslim states of the former Soviet Union, Islam had been reduced to playing a very minor role in social identity.
At independence, the reins of power in the newly formed independent Muslim states of the former Soviet Union were hijacked by former communist bosses. All ruling elites that managed to consolidate power were previous high-ranking Soviet KGB or Politburo officials.
The newly formed ruling regimes made sure that Islam remained a marginal or at best a completely government-controlled phenomenon in the newly independent Muslim countries.
Azerbaijan was no exception and thus ever since independence, the Aliyev regime went about suppressing most forms of Islamic revival in Azerbaijan. From official hijab bans, to imprisoning, killing and torturing Azerbaijan’s leading Islamic activists, scholars and journalists. The Aliyev regime defined itself in total opposition to Islam’s organic revival within Azerbaijan.
After 2015 when the Aliyev regime attacked the Muslim Unity Movement (MUM) and imprisoned its leadership, the Aliyevs embarked on a long-term political project of cultivating a loyal segment of Islamic scholars in Azerbaijan.
Over the past five years this strategy has proven to be partially successful. Statements, writings and social activities of many Islamic scholars and unofficial NGOs in Azerbaijan have become less political and less critical of the ruling regime.
Nevertheless, the regime’s success in domesticating the Islamic movement in Azerbaijan has been far from total. For example, prominent preacher Haji Shahin Hasanli, who until his official association with the regime controlled Religious Council of the Caucasus (RCC), was seen as a credible independent preacher, received a fierce backlash for his association with the RCC. Also, imprisoned Islamic scholars like Dr. Movsum Samedov, Taleh Baqirzade and Abgul Suleymanov not only continue to command wide respect and following, but have become a benchmark of authenticity of Islam in Azerbaijan.
From the very start of the recent Karabakh war, members of MUM, graduates of Islamic seminaries in Qum and many ordinary practising Muslims formed the backbone of Azerbaijan’s military reserve forces as volunteers. Known for banning Islamic literature and limiting the activities of independent Islamic scholars and preachers, the Aliyev regime suddenly began turning a blind eye to Azerbaijani soldiers and officers posting highly Islamically charged footage from the frontlines. While the Aliyev regime tolerated Islamic manifestations within the Azerbaijani army, it is inevitable that it will have to pay a political and social price for this political expediency.
On a political level, the ruling regime will be able to contain the organic resurfacing of Islam through political machinations, brute force, and external assistance. Many from the leadership and active members of the Islamic movement in Azerbaijan are either in prison or in exile.
The organisations on the ground have been erased from the political scene. Even basic social activities of organic Islamic organisations are not tolerated. For example, on March 20, 2020, members of the Muslim Unity Movement (MUM) were arrested for simply distributing free masks and information cards to help contain the coronavirus pandemic.
Nevertheless, the socio-political manifestations of Islam’s organic resurfacing in Azerbaijan during the recent Karabakh war are explicit and undeniable. A video posted on a popular Azerbaijani Islamic Facebook page on December 2, featured an Azerbaijani soldier requesting the release of Islamic prisoners arrested for protesting the hijab ban in Azerbaijan. In the same video the soldier asked for the release of MUM leader Sheikh Taleh Baqirzade. This is one of many impactful public manifestations of the Islamic revival in Azerbaijan.
While the political ramifications of Islam’s manifestation during the recent Karabakh war are difficult to predict accurately, the social impact is evident and immediate.
Dozens of videos of Azerbaijani soldiers praying to attain martyrdom on the frontlines and discussing the military events in Karabakh through the prism of Imam Hussein’s (AS) struggle in Karbala, cultivated a phenomenon which normalised Islam as an integral part of Azerbaijani statehood.
Due to Azerbaijan’s unanimous glorification of the Safavid period in its national discourse, the mental reintegration of Islam into the matters of statehood carries social repercussions with political ramifications which should not be underestimated.
Azerbaijan’s historicity is primarily based on its Safavid Turkic heritage, where Shia Islam’s integration into the state apparatus was its primary pillar. Just like in Iran, where the state-sanctioned Shia Islamic ideology unites Iranian ‘hardliners’ and ‘moderates’, Shia Islam plays a similar role in Azerbaijani society.
Another crucial factor regarding Shia Islam’s organic resurgence on a socio-political level during the recent Karabakh war is the influence of the scholarly institutions of Qum.
Referred, by the Western pundits as the Vatican of Shia Islam, the presence of Azerbaijani scholars with educational background from Qum on the frontlines, sent a powerful message that Qum’s role as a key religious centre cannot be overshadowed by religious projects propelled by the ruling regime in Baku.
Since about 2010, the ruling regime in Azerbaijan, has attempted to formulate its own version of “Shia Islam” in a secularised form. The project was mainly managed by the former presidential adviser, Ali Hasanov, but in time he lost the support of the ruling Aliyev family and was fired in 2019. In Azerbaijan it is widely speculated that part of the reason the trusted confidant of the Aliyev family was sent packing was because he did not manage to create an indigenous religious counterweight to Qum and its Azeri graduates.
Secularising Islam in Azerbaijan also has an external dimension. Israel and the US would be very pleased to create a secularised version of Shia Islam as a counterweight to Iran’s Islamic system. The successful implementation of a similar agenda among Sunni Muslim nations resulted in the establishment of UAE or Bahrain type regimes but is yet to be implemented among Shia Muslims.
Israel has been quite open about using Azerbaijan as an intelligence platform against Iran and are adamant that Azerbaijan should remain secular. In October 2020, Israel’s former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman stated that, “it is important that we have a [friendly] state in that location, a Muslim state, modern and secular.”
Maintaining Azerbaijan’s secularity means creating an environment where its religious community will define itself in opposition to Qum. This is at best is a very unrealistic objective. This would require the reconfiguration of key tenets of Shia Islam and especially the institution of Maraja. In recent history, it was attempted by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran, resulting in his regime’s collapse. The US attempted to do the same in Iraq after its invasion in 2003. Realising its impossibility, Washington changed tack and tried to play off Najaf against Qum. The strategy backfired and produced the opposite of what the US desired.
While Azerbaijan occupies an important geopolitical position, the religion factor would play a minimal role if it did not border Iran, and Israel would not be locked in an ideological cold war against the Islamic revival.
Iran’s standoff with NATO and Israel is not going to disappear any time soon thus ensuring that Azerbaijan’s Shia Muslim identity will continue to play an important tangible and soft-power role in this global standoff, unintentionally pitting the increasingly religious society of Azerbaijan against the autocratic secular regime.
No Islamic leader or movement in Azerbaijan is aiming to establish an Islamic governing system in Azerbaijan. Several key figures of the Islamic movement in Azerbaijan have stated on record that Azerbaijani society is not yet ready for a comprehensive Islamic governing model. Nevertheless, Islam’s role, as the latest Karabakh war has clearly demonstrated, is organically going to penetrate all levels of society, similar to what has happened in Turkey. While NATO regimes spent decades in making sure that Turkey remained a pro-Western secular satellite, the rise to power of the AKP highlighted the flaws of this approach, with significant negative geopolitical repercussions for NATO regimes.
Azerbaijani society spent over 70 years under a Soviet atheist system which all but eradicated Islam from public and personal life. The fact that within 30 years, despite harsh internal and external pressure, Islam managed to turn into one of the key rallying cries of Azerbaijan society on such a crucial issue as Karabakh, shows that the internal and external experts have underestimated the regenerative power of religion among Azerbaijanis.
Much of how the interaction between the Aliyev regime and the Shia Muslim community will evolve depends on how the ruling regime chooses to address the resurgent role of Shia Islam once the hype over the recent Karabakh war dies down. If the Aliyev regime attempts to impose its social dominance through its usual aggressive social engineering, there will be a backlash. The religious community post-Karabakh war, just like wider society, has gained a sense of self-confidence and will not allow itself to be pushed around. On the other hand, if the Aliyev regime leaves things as they are, the organic social growth of Shia Islam will continue and sooner or later will spill further into the domain of politics.
Zviad Jughashvili has been writing about issues mainly covering the former Soviet Union for over eight years. He has studied International Relations and taught Business Studies at college level.