Carnegie hosted Hikmet Hadjy-zadeh of Baku’s National Endowment for Democracy/Far Center, Bayram Balci of Sciences Po in Paris, and Carnegie’s Alexey Malashenko for a discussion on political Islam in the Caucasus. Carnegie’s Thomas de Waal moderated.

Islam in the North Caucasus

  • Islam Covers the Entire Region: For the past 10 years, the conversation on Islam in the Caucasus concentrated on the eastern part of the Russian Caucasus–Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia, Malashenko said. Recently, however, radical Islamic activity and discussions of the state embracing Sharia law has moved to the Western North Caucasus, regions like - Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia.
  • Past and Present: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, an Islamic rebirth took place in the Caucasus, Malashenko said. The region witnessed the construction of new mosques, the creation of an Islamic education system, and changes in public attitudes. Currently, however, popular discourse focuses on the need to Islamize or “shariatize” the region, Malashenko added. He warned that this trend creates a gap between the Muslim Caucasus and the rest of Russia.
  • A Reaction Against Moscow: Islamic radicalization and the popular push for Sharia law is in part a protest against Moscow’s policy toward the region, Malashenko explained. The population believes that Russian Federation law is ineffective and is disappointed with rampant corruption, he added.

Turkish and Iranian Competition in the Caucasus

The Islamic revival in the region is encouraged by three external influences, Balci said. Turkey influences the Sunni revival, Iran the Shia revival, and the Arab world influences the Salafi revival.

  • Ankara’s Official Influence: Despite the secular identity of the Turkish state, Turkey has contributed to the diffusion of Islam by developing a policy to control the evolution of Islam in the Central Asia and the Caucasus, Balci said. Turkey’s official influence stems from Diyanet, or the ministry of religious affairs.
  • Turkey’s Non-State Influence: A multitude of non-state movements, like Sait Nursi, Fethullah Gulen, and other brotherhood organizations are widespread among all Sunnis in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and North Caucasus. This Islamic activism consists of setting up religious schools, distributing Islamic literature, and offering training for new Islamic elites, said Balci.
  • Tehran’s Official Influence: Iranian authorities influence Islam in the Caucasus through the embassy or Iranian cultural centers, Balci explained.
  • Iran’s Non-State Influence: Iran’s most important contribution to the revival of Islam in the Caucasus is non-official, Balci said. Major Islamic thinkers like the famous mullahs Lenkerani, Tabrizi, Khamenei, and Sistani play an important role in the Islamic Revival among Shia communities in the Caucasus. These influences are especially relevant among the Shia population in Azerbaijan and Azeri diaspora in Russia, added Balci.
  • Government Attitudes: Different governments approach these foreign influences in different ways, Balci said:

    • Georgia: In Georgia, authorities accept various Turkish Islamic groups, which dominate local Islam in Ajaria. However, in Azerbaijani regions Islam is actually under the control of the Sheikh ul Islam in Baku, said Balci.
    • Russia: The Russian authorities originally let Turkish movements develop their activities in North Caucasus but since the beginning of 2000, they have limited foreign Islamic activism. Several Turkish high schools have been closed by central authorities.
    • Azerbaijan: The authorities in Azerbaijan at first preferred Turkish influences to counter Iranian activism, Balci said. As authorities realized that competition between Tehran and Ankara was contributing to tensions between Sunni and Shia citizens, they began efforts to contain Turkish influences as well. Balci explained that the Azerbaijani government hopes to create a national Islam, compatible with the new state official ideology. To achieve this objective, Azerbaijan’s State Committee and the Caucasus Muslim Board has sought to impose control on all Islamic practices and have been willing to reduce religious liberties, added Balci.

Political Islam in Azerbaijan

A new wave of tension between the secular state and religious activists is taking place in Azerbaijan, said Hadjy-zadeh. There has been a wave of arrests of religious activists in the country, which some experts say is a response to the terrorist attack on Israel’s embassy in Baku, he added.

  • Population: 65 percent of population is Shia and 35 percent is Sunni, but only 13-15 percent of them describe themselves as “deep believers” or actively practicing Islam, said Hadjy-zadeh.
  • Government Actions: Religious literature from abroad is censured and there is a law stating that those who study Islam abroad cannot be mullahs in Azerbaijan, added Hadjy-zadeh.
  • Anti-Clerical Movement: The liberal anti-clerical movement, first helped by Bolsheviks, is still present in Azerbaijan, said Hadjy-zadeh. The murder of journalist Rafiq Tagi last year, carried out in accordance with the fatwa issued against him by Ayatollah Lankerani from Iran, has rallied outrage and a new wave of public debate in Azerbaijan, said Hadjy-zadeh.
  • Political Islam: Azerbaijan does not have a strong political Islamic party, nor does it have any particularly popular Muslim leaders. However, there are a small number of extremist groups in Azerbaijan, said Hadjy-zadeh.