Azerbaijan: Watching for Wahabis

The religious factor in Azerbaijan's parliamentary election campaign.
With mosques throughout Azerbaijan attracting growing numbers of worshipers, the government has started to keep close tabs on religious activities.
In recent weeks, several suspected "Wahhabis" have been arrested, a ban on imported extremist religious literature introduced, and, reportedly, a move made by the Ministry of National Security to place several mosques in Baku under its control.

As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, understanding of the term "Wahhabism" can vary. Wahhabis are generally understood to comprise a puritanical movement of Islam that is especially popular in Saudi Arabia. Opposition supporters in Azerbaijan, however, say authorities are using the term loosely, equating Wahhabism with Islamic radicalism, and labeling any devout Muslims who opposes official policies as a Wahhabi.

Some officials insist that Islamic radicals see oil-rich Azerbaijan, a country of strategic interest to Western governments, as a tempting target for terrorist attacks. Speaking at an August 3 conference on religion and national security, Rafik Aliyev, head of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, warned that Islamic extremists working within Baku pose a threat to Azerbaijan’s political stability during the run-up to the November 6 parliamentary elections.

"Propaganda against the state and the government is currently provided in several mosques and this should be prevented," said Aliyev (no relation to President Ilham Aliyev). "Special services have already taken the situation under control. The government possesses information about the number of those mosques and preventive measures against those mosques have already been started." Aliyev declined to name any mosques under government surveillance.

On August 4, the APA News Agency reported that the National Security Ministry had taken several mosques in Baku under its control. Ministry spokesperson Arif Babayev, however, denied the report. "It is not within the mandate of the Ministry of National Security to watch or monitor mosques," Babayev said. "There are other state agencies to do that."

The State Committee for Religious Affairs has also imposed a ban on the distribution of religious literature that promotes Wahabbism, the Turan news agency reported. The Azerbaijani Caucasus Muslims Board has already received 14 tons of religious books, containing "radical Wahhabist propaganda," from the Kuwait-based Committee of Asia Muslims in late July, Aliyev said.

The National Security Ministry has long monitored religious life. In 2000, Deputy Security Minister Tofig Babayev alleged that the Abu-Bekr mosque, located in central Baku, was a "den of Wahhabis." Although numerous attempts have since been made to close the mosque, it remains active and extremely popular with visitors, gathering several thousand each week for Friday prayers.

The recent arrest of several alleged Wahhabis on charges of planning terrorist attacks has helped heighten official concern about the Islamic radical issue. On July 21, a police officer was killed and another wounded during an incident at a regional bus station near Baku. According to official accounts, the law-enforcement officers approached a car and requested identification documents. The occupants, in turn, opened fire. Two Lezgins, an ethnic minority group in Azerbaijan that has agitated for autonomy, were arrested in connection with the incident. They have been identified as Arif Hajiyev, Russian citizen, and Emin Hajiverdiyev, whose citizenship was not specified. Three others in the car, described as being of "Arab-looking" in appearance, reportedly evaded arrest.

Authorities now describe the two suspects in custody as "Wahhabis" who planned "terrorist acts in Baku." Police allegedly found an assortment of rifles, knives, night-vision equipment, military uniforms, and explosives in the car carrying the group. Radical religious literature also was reportedly found later at a Baku apartment rented by the detainees.

The July 21 incident is just one of several incidents since the start of 2005 in which law-enforcement officials allegedly disrupted Islamic radical plans to carry out attacks. At the beginning of the year, six people, including Baku resident Amiraslan Iskenderov, who allegedly received special training in Afghanistan from 1999 to 2003 in al-Qaeda-connected training camps, were arrested and sentenced to three- to seven-year prison terms for supposedly conspiring to carry out suicide attacks.

In June, members of another supposed terrorist cell, including citizens from Afghanistan, the United Kingdom, Jordan, and Russia – received prison sentences ranging from three- to 15-years for plotting attacks in Baku that aimed to "foster panic throughout the country," according to a statement distributed by the security ministry.

Late on July 12, authorities arrested several individuals at a dacha in the village of Novkhany, north of Baku, charging them with planning a terrorist attack. According to a security ministry spokesman, the suspects were in possession of a cache of weapons, explosives and uniforms, along with radical religious literature.

Experts see several reasons for the perceived increase in Islamic radical activity in Azerbaijan. Some argue that the appearance of Wahhabism is part of a larger, global trend. Islamic extremism of late has taken a particular hold in the Russian-controlled North Caucasus, the source of most Wahhabi literature to Azerbaijan. Radical tendencies may now be spreading to the South.

Others point to circumstances specific to Azerbaijan. Ilgar Ibrahimoglu -- a popular imam who spent a month in prison for allegedly helping to orchestrate violent opposition rallies to protest the 2003 presidential election -- suggested that limited democratic and human rights in Azerbaijan has helped to stir interest in Wahhabism. "By repressing normal worshippers, the authorities have created conditions for the radicalization and extremism of Wahhabi groups," Ibrahimoglu said.

Ibrahimoglu himself saw his Juma mosque disbanded by court order in 2004. The imam, an outspoken government critic, is still barred from running for parliament.

Other analysts say the Islamic radical threat is exaggerated and argue that the cases to date have been falsified. Zardusht Alizade, an independent political analyst, claims that the government uses such cases to justify to the West its lackluster performance on human rights issues. "Authorities want to justify human rights violations through their efforts to maintain stability and fight terrorism," Alizade said. "That is why they want to portray the country as an advance-post of Wahhabi attacks."

Opposition politicians have accused the government of using the so-called "Wahhabi" card in an attempt to bolster popular support for President Aliyev’s administration during the run-up to the parliamentary elections. Ibrahimoglu, the imam, agrees, saying the lack of transparency in Wahhabi cases leaves opens the possibility that the facts are being manipulated. He characterized the government’s recent statements warning about possible terrorist acts as a "strategic" tactic. "Some people want to create a feeling of danger in society, disseminating the fear of a threat from radical religious groups," Ibrahimoglu said. "That is how people’s attention will be drawn away from election procedures."

Editor’s Note: Khadija Ismailova and Shahin Abbasov are freelance journalists based in Baku.
Posted August 18, 2005 © Eurasianet