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

Azerbaijan: Sunni Groups Viewed With Suspicion

By Shahla Sultanova

I had stopped believing in God by 2007, when I started researching Azerbaijan’s Salafi community.

However, I was thrilled to learn about people who unlike me were deeply attached to the Muslim faith, and I had no trouble remaining objective because their perspective on life was so different to mine.

Before I visited the Abu-Bakr mosque as a journalist in autumn 2007, I had heard almost only negative things about these Azeris who had imported strict Saudi-style Islam to the country.


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Azerbaijan: Sunni Groups Viewed With Suspicion

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I remember being shocked by the number of people in the yard of the mosque, and among them were people I would never have imagined seeing as devoted Salafi Muslims. While the popular image was that they treated women humiliatingly, Imam Gamet Suleymanov welcomed me into his office and answered all of my questions.

My interest grew as I observed how the community expanded each year. My boss, whom I admired a lot, became a Salafi; my agnostic friends made friends with Salafis. And that made me wonder why so many intelligent and well-educated Azeris were joining the community. While trying to answer that question, I uncovered new questions that took me deeper into the Salafi issue.

I reported on Salafis being forcibly shaved; on police violence towards them; and on an explosion in their mosque in 2008. The atmosphere soured, and they became increasingly reluctant to talk to journalists. It took more effort to make them trust me, but even when they turned me down, they were polite about it.

Like most journalists I did make mistakes while writing about them. My biggest mistake was to call them Wahhabis, which is used as a term of abuse here to describe religious extremists, and introduces them to millions of readers wrongly. Like most of my colleagues, I did not include much background information, which was so crucial for readers to distinguish them from other Islamic groups.

Later, as a journalism student at Indiana University, I decided to base my research works on Salafism in Azerbaijan. One of my investigations was analysing how Wahhabism is covered in the local media. My analyses showed the false image created by mainstream media which highly influenced public opinion. I decided to do what I could to right the wrong done to them.

It was by now very hard to find Salafis, and even harder to make them talk. I found Adil Rajabov through a friend. He sent a message to me, “I can talk by cellphone, but only on Tuesday”. His cell phone was active only two hours every Tuesday morning.

“I am getting threatened a lot. That is why I keep my cellphone off. I turn it on only for few hours a week to talk to my relatives and friends,” Rajabov said.

The next challenge of the story was finding an expert on the religious situation in Azerbaijan who was prepared to talk about Salafism. Most refused, saying having their names linked to the issues would cause them trouble.

Media organisations I tried to sell the story to told me the same thing. It was “politically too sensitive”. Thus, I turned to the international media and found IWPR.

As my previous stories on Islam, this story too did not change my religious view - I am still agnostic. But I am sure that Salafis’ lives in Azerbaijan are complicated by the false labels attached to them and due to the media’s reluctance to cover them objectively or, indeed, at all.