Azerbaijan: Sunni Groups Viewed With Suspicion

Police accused of branding all Salafi Muslims as potential troublemakers.

Azerbaijan: Sunni Groups Viewed With Suspicion

Police accused of branding all Salafi Muslims as potential troublemakers.

When Adil Rajabov, 33, moved his wife and four children to Baku, he was leaving behind his home, parents and friends, but he felt the Azerbaijani capital was the only place where he would be free to practice his Muslim faith.

After spending most of his life in Zaqatala, a region of northern Azerbaijan famous for its mountains and rich agriculture, he still misses his home, but would not like to go back and face the problems he suffered there.

Young people often move to the capital in search of education and jobs, but Rajabov’s case is unusual.

Educated at Medina in Saudi Arabia, he describes himself as a Salafi, an adherent of conservative strand within Sunni Islam. Most Azerbaijanis belong to the Shia branch of Islam, but there is a significant Sunni minority.

Rajabov’s long beard and short trousers mean he is often labelled a “Wahhabi”, a word that in former Soviet states is used as a derogatory term for anyone viewed as a fundamentalist or outside the Islamic institutions sanctioned by the state.

“I get called ‘Wahhabi’ because of my appearance,” he said. “Police and often other people see me as dangerous.”

In Zaqatala, Rajabov said, he had been taken to a local police station three times in the last two years, and on each occasion the police shaved off his beard.

Rajabov insists he and other Salafis are no threat to Azerbaijan.

“We just follow what the Koran says,” he said.

Officials deny targeting devout Muslims. Gunduz Ismailov, a senior official at the government committee for religion, told IWPR that just like other citizens, Salafis faced arrest only if they committed offences.

However, human rights groups say police are increasingly singling out young believers like Rajabov, who are at risk of harassment, arrest and torture.

“Over recent years, we’ve received significant numbers of calls from people who said they were targeted by the police because of their religious affiliation,” Intiqam Aliyev, head of the Legal Awareness Centre in Baku, said. “If an arrest or interrogation does not specifically relate to an offence, but is based on the individual’s religious allegiance, it counts as illegal.”

Gamet Suleymanov is imam or prayer-leader at the Abu-Bakr mosque in Baku, with the biggest congregation in the country. The government closed the Sunni mosque after an explosion in 2008, but Suleymanov insists the community has done nothing wrong, and simply encouraged other Muslims to observe the faith properly. He says the “Wahhabi” tag is used to smear anyone who does this.

“This is not about promoting Wahhabism,” Suleymanov said, who estimates there are between 10,000 and 20,000 Salafis in Azerbaijan. “Salafism existed for a long time before Wahhabism emerged.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the influence of both Shia and Sunni Islam has grown substantially, alarming the authorities. State-run media regularly suggest that some groups in Azerbaijan are linked to Al-Qaeda and other Islamic radicals.

Historian Arif Yunusov says Salafism has won a following in Azerbaijan, and is particularly popular among people who have suffered from poverty, rising corruption and crime.

“In general, Salafis in Azerbaijan are peaceful people, not radical Islamists,” he said

As well as Salafis, there is a distinct group of Sunni conservatives in northern Azerbaijan called Khawarij. They differ from Suleymanov’s followers in that they do not recognise the legitimacy of the current Azerbaijani government.

Rasim Musabeyov, a political analyst, said Islamist groups did not present a major threat, but were worth keeping an eye on.

“There have been a few cases where individuals identifying themselves with this religious movement have carried out armed attacks and acts of terrorism…. the danger posed by religious fanatics and radicals cannot be underestimated,” he said.

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.

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