Azerbaijan in the SWP: the United States is concerned

The United States recently included Azerbaijan in its annual so-called Special Watch List (SWL), which includes countries with serious violations of religious freedom. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken retained all 12 countries compared to the previous year and added Algeria, Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic, the Comoros, and Vietnam to the list.

Blinken also singled out organizations of "particular concern", including Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Houthis, IS in the Sahel, IS in West Africa, the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jamaat Nasr al-Islam Wal Muslimeen and the Taliban.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) welcomed Azerbaijan's inclusion, echoing concerns expressed in their recent report. According to the USCIRF, over the past three years, Azerbaijan has tightened restrictions on religious activities, twice amending the Law on Religion.

The USCIRF report expressed concerns about religious buildings in Nagorno-Karabakh, repression of Shiite activists, and the government's unwillingness to impose conscientious objection to military service. It claimed that the Azerbaijani authorities continue to monitor, fine, detain and arrest Shiite Muslims.

The USCIRF has repeatedly tried to add Azerbaijan to a special list in the past, but has not received the support of the State Department. This zeal was especially evident after President Ilham Aliyev signed amendments to the law on religious freedom in June 2021. These changes are aimed at preventing children from being forced to join a religious denomination, suppressing the propaganda of religious extremism and limiting the participation of government employees in religious activities.

The State Department's 2021 Religious Freedom report highlighted concerns expressed by the U.S. Ambassador and embassy staff, who called for the release of people imprisoned for their religious beliefs and for the registration of small religious communities to be resolved.

Daniel Neidel, the first deputy U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, also expressed concern at the Warsaw Conference on the Human Dimension in November 2022. Neidel criticized the strict regulation of religious rituals in Azerbaijan and the state's persecution of non-state religious communities, stressing the continuing concern about the detention of Shiite believers.

The situation persisted in the 2022 report, which mentioned legislative changes that transferred the appointment of mosque staff to a state body, which raised concerns about freedom of religious activity.

The report sets out a number of recommendations for Azerbaijan, including addressing issues of registration of small religious communities, the introduction of a civilian alternative to military service and the revision of the 2009 law on religious freedom in accordance with the recommendations of the Council of Europe Venice Commission.

Recognizing the high degree of religious tolerance in Azerbaijani society (This assessment was founded. In February 2022, during Aliyev's visit to the Vatican, Pope Francis, welcoming the president of a Muslim country, called Azerbaijan "An example of true tolerance"), the report emphasizes the need for cooperation with Baku to solve the identified problems and bring them in line with international standards of religious freedom. 

Elshan Hasanov, coordinator of the Union for the Freedom of Political Prisoners of Azerbaijan, approved the report of the US State Department, emphasizing the paradox that Shiite believers, who make up the majority, often become targets. He noted that more than half of the more than two hundred political prisoners are practicing believers.

A turbulent decade of repression and policy change

In the early 2010s, Azerbaijan launched a campaign against dissident Shiite groups, which led to the arrest of numerous religious figures, including leaders of the Islamic Party. The crackdown has spread to independent religious activists, setting the stage for a period marked by arrests and clashes between believers and law enforcement during protests aimed at lifting the ban on wearing hijabs in schools.

By 2014, it became apparent that not all alleged extremists had been suppressed.  The Syrian war revealed the significant involvement of Azerbaijani radicals in Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which caused alarm in the Azerbaijani government.

Recognizing the growing importance of religious dynamics, the Azerbaijani authorities have initiated significant measures. Structural changes were in the foreground: By Presidential Decree in February 2014, Kamal Abdullah was appointed State Adviser on Multiculturalism, Interethnic and Religious Issues, with significant powers. This led to the creation of the Baku International Multiculturalism Center, which operates under the President.

In 2014, Elshad Iskenderov, accused in the press of having links with the Gulenist sect, was removed from the post of chairman of the State Committee for Religious Organizations. Mubariz Gurbanli, who succeeded him, an influential member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, took office in July, signaling a change of course.

Measures to suppress religious dissent and promote a certain narrative in Azerbaijan have led to structural changes and strategic appointments. The growing involvement of the State in religious affairs, exemplified by the Knowledge Foundation established in 2014, reflects a broader trend of governments around the world facing the intersection of religion, politics and security. The evolving dynamics raise questions about the balance between State control and the protection of religious freedoms in Azerbaijan, a country where the religious sphere has become a matter of serious concern to the Government.

The tenth anniversary of the tightening of the rules

In 2015, Azerbaijan witnessed a significant tightening of religious legislation, with amendments further restricting religious practice. Amendment No. 1227-IVQD of March 6, 2015 introduced censorship on all types of religious literature, significantly limiting the dissemination of religious ideas.

Another package of amendments, dated December 4, 2015 (No. 29-VQD), took another step forward by prohibiting the use of religious paraphernalia outside prayer rooms. The law explicitly states: "Religious slogans and the use of other religious attributes outside prayer rooms, in public places, are prohibited." This was a clear attempt to control the public expression of religious beliefs by allowing the use of religious banners only in designated places of worship.

On the same day, the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan "On Combating Religious Extremism" was adopted, establishing a legal framework for combating religious extremism. This law defines the rights and obligations of State bodies involved in countering extremism, and provides for severe penalties for individuals and legal entities engaged in extremist activities. The legislation gives the authorities the authority to bring persons involved in religious extremism to justice in accordance with the Criminal Code, the Code of Administrative Offenses and the Civil Code of Azerbaijan, up to the deprivation of citizenship of persons involved in illegal armed groups abroad.

Continuing this trend, the amendment to the law "On Freedom of Religion..."in 2016, it banned the activities of religious structures engaged in religious extremism, tightening control over religious organizations perceived as threats to state security.

In June 2021, President Ilham Aliyev signed 14 amendments to the law on religious freedom. These changes, among other provisions, prohibited the coercion of children to religious confession, prohibited the propaganda of religious extremism, prohibited government employees from engaging in religious activities and granted official religious centers the exclusive right to confer religious titles. In addition, religious communities were required to suspend their activities in the absence of a State-approved religious leader.

In March 2022, additional amendments were made to the law on freedom of Religion, transferring the authority for personnel appointments in the country's mosques from the state-controlled Office of Muslims of the Caucasus (OMC) to a state body - the State Committee for Work with Religious Structures (SCWRS.) This decision, presumably motivated by a desire to prevent foreign influence and terrorism, has raised concerns about potential state interference in religious affairs.

As Azerbaijan's religious legislation develops, questions arise about the delicate balance between the interests of State security and the protection of individual religious freedoms in the country.

The delicate balance of control and charitable initiatives

In an effort to establish control over religious activities, Azerbaijan declared 2016 the "Year of Multiculturalism", followed by the "Year of Islamic Solidarity" in 2017. These initiatives, apparently aimed at strengthening a sense of unity, were implemented as part of a series of planned events, both domestic and international.

Under the slogan of the "Year of Multiculturalism", about 50 events were organized, which were attended by a wide variety of participants, including heads of executive authorities, law enforcement agencies, youth, religious leaders, intellectuals and the public. The State Committee for Religious Affairs has organized more than 160 events in various cities and districts, as indicated in the Action Plan.

In the subsequent Year of Islamic Solidarity, 41 international and regional events were held with the significant participation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the State Committee for Religious Affairs. The fourth Islamic Sports Games held in Baku became a notable event during this period.

Complementing these initiatives, the State Committee for Religious Affairs has played a role in the media landscape by organizing programs such as "Religion and Society" on the public channel, "Inam (Faith)" on Space TV and "Menevi Deyerler (Moral Values)" on “Asan” Radio.

In 2017, by Presidential Decree, the "Foundation for the Promotion of Moral Values" was established under the State Committee. Drawing inspiration from a similar organization in Turkey, this foundation has funded projects in the field of religious education and other related fields. The head of the Foundation, Mehman Ismailov, said that in 2018, more than 1,060 people received financial incentives for promoting moral values. In addition, imams and their assistants, appointed by the executive branch, received official salaries.

The Foundation also engaged in social projects, organizing iftars and providing food assistance to families of martyrs and orphanages during Ramadan and Eid al-Adha. In an effort to strengthen educational work on moral values, the Foundation held conferences, training seminars, discussion seminars, regional seminars and a summer school for volunteers.

The influence of the executive extended to higher religious education with the establishment of the "Azerbaijan Institute of Theology" under the State Committee on Religion in 2018. This state-funded institution absorbed the Baku Islamic University, concentrating both higher religious education and its financing under the jurisdiction of the executive branch.

On March 15, 2023, an international conference on the theme "Islamic Solidarity – the Call of Time" was held in Baku.

In September 2023, at the 12th Conference of Ministers of Culture of the Islamic World, held in Doha, the capital of the State of Qatar, the city of Shusha was declared the cultural capital of the Islamic World in 2024.

While these initiatives demonstrate the Government's desire to shape a religious narrative, the concentration of religious education under State control raises questions about the Government's long-term strategy in managing religious affairs. The subtle interaction between control and charitable activities continues to determine Azerbaijan's approach to religious policy.

Striking a balance among global challenges

Recent changes in the policy of the Government of Azerbaijan regarding religion present a complex picture that requires careful assessment. The active position of the authorities located in the Muslim world, where the specter of extremism is hovering, is partly a response to the growing global trend of radicalization.

Nevertheless, the concentration of religious control in the hands of the State creates a complex dynamic. Although the Government's efforts are aimed at mitigating potential security threats, there is a risk of inadvertently driving religious activities underground, a scenario seen in other regions.

It is premature to say that the Azerbaijani authorities have found an elusive "golden mean" between coercion and incentives in the management of religious affairs. The experience of Turkiye and various Muslim countries highlights a recurring pattern – attempts at full state control often lead to a split in the religious sphere. This division manifests itself in the form of two different aspects of religiosity:

Official religiosity: mosques and religious figures operating under the supervision of the State.

Underground religiosity: A hidden sphere that, if left unchecked, could potentially breed extremism, posing a threat to secular and democratic foundations.

History teaches us that achieving balance in this delicate balance is a challenge faced by countries around the world. As Governments face the need to regulate religious affairs for security reasons, the unintended consequences of pushing religious activities into the shadows remain an ongoing problem.

Azerbaijan's trajectory in this regard raises questions about the long-term sustainability of its approach. Achieving a balance between State control and preserving the authenticity of religious expression requires a thoughtful strategy — one that recognizes the importance of religious freedoms while considering security imperatives.

While the international community is facing the difficulties of religious governance, Azerbaijan is at a crossroads, facing the task of choosing a path that will ensure national security without compromising the basis of religious diversity and self-expression. Only time will tell the effectiveness of the current policy and whether it will be able to avoid the pitfalls observed in other countries of the world.

The concern of the United States reflects the growing role of religion in Azerbaijani politics

The United States' concerns about religious freedoms in Azerbaijan seem to be rooted in a subtle understanding  the changing socio-political atmosphere in the country. The United States, acutely aware of the potential threat to stability posed by the growing influence of religion, especially against the background of restrictions on democratic freedoms, seems to be sensing a changing political dynamic.

The Azerbaijani authorities' restrictions on democratic freedoms inadvertently lead the electorate away from the traditional secular political system, creating a vacuum that religion is ready to fill. This transition from a secular to a religious worldview becomes the ideological basis for the protests of believers against the government's policies. Paradoxically, the restrictions of the authorities contribute to the strengthening of the role of religion in shaping political narratives.

The focus on the persecution of Shiite groups in the US report highlights particular concerns about the potential transformation of the secular system into a system based on religious radicalism. Examples from countries such as Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, and others where secular systems have evolved into radical religious entities serve as cautionary tales.

Based on this global experience, the United States seems to be trying to convey to Azerbaijan the potential risks associated with the uncontrolled growth of religious influence in political life. There seems to be a concern that restrictions on democratic freedoms may inadvertently create an environment in which religious ideologies become the basis for opposition to government policies.

As the United States builds its diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan, the main message seems to be a warning against inadvertently contributing to a trajectory that has historically caused the rise of radical religious systems. Balancing concern for religious freedoms and the need to maintain political stability is likely to remain a delicate task with implications for both Azerbaijan's internal dynamics and its position in the international community.

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