Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: Anti-Israel Feeling Spreads

Member of parliament alleged to have supported Israeli campaign gets death threats, amid growing radicalisation over Gaza suffering.
By Sabuhi Mammadli
Residents of a town in eastern Azerbaijan say they have condemned a fellow citizen to death for what they see as his support for Israel’s campaign in Gaza, raising fears that the conflict could radicalise society in the oil-rich republic.



The town of Nardaran has seen daily protests on its central square against the campaign, which has killed more than 1,000 Palestinians, with local men burning American and Israeli flags.



But much of the anger has been reserved for Sabir Rustamkhanli, a member of parliament who – say residents of Nardaran, which is north of the capital Baku – approved of the Israeli offensive. The allegations first surfaced on the Iranian satellite channel Seher.



“America, which speaks loudly about democracy, supports this criminal Israel. Azerbaijanis must not stay silent, when the Israelis with the help of America hunt our brothers in faith,” said Nardaran resident Haji Ali Huseynov.



“Shameless people like Sabir Rustamkhanli tell lies ... For this the elders have condemned him to death. So let Rustamkhanli increase his bodyguards and be careful when he leaves the house.”



Prosecutors pledged to investigate the threat, even though other residents of the town distanced themselves from it, and it sharply revealed the influence of Iran among the practising Shia of Azerbaijan, which can only be a worry for the country’s secular government.



The Seher channel is broadcast from Iran, which has a large Azeri minority. It regularly shows religious programming and is markedly critical of the Azerbaijan government. Attempts to block its signal have failed and it is available right across the south of the country.



Rustamkhanli denied ever having told Seher he approved of Israel’s actions, and blamed the Iranian government for trying to smear him because of he had opposed its policies in the past.



“For many years, I have been a vehement defender of Azeris who are being investigated by the Iranian authorities. This aggression against me is connected to this and ordered from our neighbouring country. Sadly, the town of Nardaran, like the southern regions of the country, is under the influence of Iran. As for the threat against me, this is a criminal offence and the law enforcement authorities are dealing with it,” he told IWPR.



But anti-Israel feeling has spread further than Rustamkhanly predicted, with protests in Baku itself having to be broken up by the police. On January 7, a day holy to Shia since it marks the day when the third Imam Husayn ibn Ali was killed, demonstrators tried to hold a protest outside the Israeli embassy.



Police stopped them getting within 200 metres of the building, and dispersed the crowd violently. This march followed similar attempts on January 1 and 2, when 25 protesters were arrested and held for ten days. Another 25 people were detained and fined.



Although the protests were small, local religious experts have warned the government to take them seriously. Political opposition is weak in Azerbaijan, where Ilham Aliev took over from his father as president in 2003 and maintained his strict form of rule, but public discontent is widespread.



“The local opposition is weak, and their place could at the moment easily be filled by Azerbaijan’s radical Islamists, who serve the interests of other countries and above all Iran,” said Mehti Hasanov, a local religious expert.



He warned that the government needed to take action now before the movements spread outside notorious radical hot spots like Nardaran.



“The Islamists under the influence of Iran are becoming more radical. They have openly sentenced a famous man to death, and you can’t rule out the fact that in future there will be attempts to realise these Sharia sentences,” he said.



Public disquiet over Gaza has grown as the death toll has mounted. More than 300 children have died in the violence, leading to calls from some Azerbaijanis that the country should break diplomatic relations with Israel.



“Most people express their sorrow for the killed children and for the civilians in general, even though they don’t go to protests. The majority of people feel sorry [for the Palestinians] but do not take to the streets. By my reckoning, around 20 per cent of people are prepared publicly to express their position on this,” said Niyazi Mehti, a sociologist.



But these 20 per cent can be very strident indeed. Nailya Muradova, a 32-year-old Baku resident who has been angered by the events, said they had made her look at the world in a different way.



“I went to the religious shops and bought several Palestinian scarves and I go around in them all the time. And I recently found out that we can send money to help the people in Gaza through the Bank of Iran so I sent as much as I could,” she said.



“This is not much, I know, but I am determined to do all I can for the civilians whose blood is being spilled by Israel.”



And analysts warn that, although such active opponents of Israel’s actions are not numerous, her views are quietly held by most people in the country.



“During the events in Iraq and Afghanistan, believers in Azerbaijan also expressed their disagreement. But these protests or this sending of money did not occur. I think that is connected to the fact that in Palestine there is a completely different situation. And the strikes are against a civilian population. In Iraq and Afghanistan there was war, and what is happening in Palestine is just slaughter,” said Azad Isazade, another religious expert.



Sabuhi Mammadli is a correspondent with Yeni Musavat newspaper.