Staunton, July 30 – Commentators in both Moscow and the West typically view the ideological competition in the post-Soviet countries as a simple one between pro-Russian and pro-Western groups, but in the Muslim-majority states, there is a third trend, the pro-Islamic one, and that is becoming stronger as the others and especially the Western one weakens.
In a major interview on the religious and political situation in Azerbaijan posted online yesterday, conflict specialist Arif Yunusov says that in his country, the pro-Russian direction “was always weak” and the pro-Western one, while strong in the 1990s, is weakening given recent popular disillusionment about the West.
He suggests that this disillusionment has arisen because Western governments have cultivated close ties with President Ilham Aliyev. Yanusuv notes that: “there is a law of conflict studies according to which when an empty space arises in society, other forces must fill it.” With the West’s influence ebbing, those forces are Islamic.
In the 1990s, the pro-Western trend dominated, he continues. There were pro-Islamic groups but they were marginal. “No one took [them] seriously,” even when they were charged with being “pro-Iranian spies.”
But since becoming president, Yunusov says, Ilham Aliyev has “cleansed this ‘pro-Western field,’” suppressing or extremely restricting the activities of parties and civil society and creating a situation in which “Azerbaijan will become a second Uzbekistan” or even “a second Turkmenistan.” Without any civil society, “this is a matter of time.”
At the same time, the rising generation of Azerbaijanis is more seriously interested in Islam. This has happened because they have concluded that: “We don’t need Russia. The West is hypocritical and does not want anything besides our oil and gas and closes its eyes to all violations by the authorities of the norms of democracy.”
Until the last decade, Yunusov continues, those most attracted toward Islam were “the national minorities of Azerbaijan, the peoples of the Northern Daghestani group – the Lezgins, the Avars, and the Tsakhurs.” Most of them were Salafites, something few ethnic Azerbaijanis are. The Islamic literature these groups had was “from Russia and in the Russian language.”
Now, however, Islamization and its radicalization is spreading into the dominant community. If one percent of the Azerbaijanis were genuinely practicing Muslims 15 years ago, now 22 percent are, although at present only one percent are radicals. The rest are simply believers, but more are being radicalized by widespread repression and loss of faith in the West.
What the regime does not appear to understand is that Muslims and even Salafites in Azerbaijan are overwhelmingly law-abiding and supporters of President Aliyev, Yunusov says, and any failure by the authorities to make the distinction between them and the tiny minority of radicals works not to the benefit of the regime or the majority.
Unfortunately, he notes, it increasingly appears to be the case that “for the authorities, any believer is dangerous, and especially any believer who is not under control.” But such control is ultimately impossible. It is not hard to control the clergy in Christianity, but it is very difficult to control Muslims who don’t have one.
“Closing a church is a heavy blow for a Christian but closing a mosque, although unpleasant, is not a tragedy. A Muslim simply transforms his apartment into a prayer hall,” Yunusov says. The Soviets closed all mosques and thought they had solved their problem. But Muslims simply went into their homes. Repeating the Soviet mistake is not a good idea.
In order to avoid a disaster, Yunusov says, the most important thing is “to study the situation in order not to create myths.” There isn’t going to be an Islamic revolution in Azerbaijan in the next 20 to 25 years, he says, because there are too many divisions within Islam in that country and there is no charismatic leader.
The authorities need to understand that, and they need to understand as well that the role of Islam will nonetheless grow. Soviet times are not going to come back. Consequently, the leaders of the post-Soviet Muslim republics need to decide which path they would like their country to follow: that of Iran, that of the Arab countries or that of Turkey.
Treating all believers as if they were all radicals is a dangerous and potentially counter-productive approach because while “there will not be a purely Islamic revolution as in Iran,” it cannot be excluded that there could be an outbreak of popular exploiting Islamic slogans, all the more so because of declining faith in Western values.
Yunusov says he has noted “one tendency” which should be a matter of concern. Where “pro-Western parties” have been restricted, “many people suddenly have gone over to Islam.” People are disappointed: “the Americans are silent, why? Because of our oil and gas? Then we don’t need [their] democracy and so on.”
Anti-Americanism is now widespread, and as a result of that, people are turning to Islam. “An individual cannot live without faith, and if his faith in the West is shaken, he will choose Islam,” Yunusov warns in words that apply not just to Azerbaijan but to the countries of Central Asia as well.