Azerbaijan Tightens Grip on Islamic Literature

Devout Muslims say freedom of confession under attack.

Azerbaijan Tightens Grip on Islamic Literature

Devout Muslims say freedom of confession under attack.

The Lezgi mosque in Baku. (Photo: Shahla Sultanova)
The Lezgi mosque in Baku. (Photo: Shahla Sultanova)

Azerbaijan has tightened restrictions on religious literature – both imported and locally published– in a move that reflects official worries about Sunni radicalism and also about interference by the Shia theocracy in neighbouring Iran. 

Legislative amendments passed in December 2011 made it a criminal act to import, publish or distribute religious material that has not been approved by the government committee for religious organisations. The changes passed by Azerbaijan’s parliament on February 22 add to this by requiring all such items – audio and video material as well as literature – to carry an official stamp of approval, and confines their sale to government-designated retail outlets.

Altay Goyushov, a historian of religion from Baku State University, says the government is worried by the strength of foreign influences on Islamic practice, coming in from a range of countries.

Azerbaijan is a predominantly Muslim country with a Shia majority. The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought about a resurgence in Islam, and the authorities frequently express concern about Tehran’s attempts to project its influence in the Shia community of Azerbaijan. Among the Sunni minority, the government takes a dim view of groups like the Salafis, with roots in the Arab world.

“Azerbaijan has a new generation of believers who are very active,” Goyushev said. “The government wants to control them and those [foreign] influences. It wants to make Islam something it owns and control.”

The authorities are especially annoyed when Islamic figures accuse them of mismanagement and corruption. In 2011, Movsum Samadov, head of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, was arrested after comparing President Ilham Aliyev to one of the most hated figures in the Shia tradition. (See Crackdown on Islamists in Azerbaijan.)

Limiting access to Muslim literature is opposed by religious figures like Faiq Mustafa of the Lezgi mosque in the capital Baku, where the congregation is Sunni.

“We need literature just like anyone else,” he said. “We need it even more, in fact, because Islam is such a complicated science. Unlike the stereotypical view that we gather in the mosque for a chat, we have to read a great deal to be aware of the Islamic rules for marriage, property, income, and so on. Religious literature is at the core of our community’s development.”

Zahid Oruj, a member of the opposition Ana Watan party who sits on parliament’s security and defence committee, backs the amendments, including steps to curb the proliferation of sales of religious literature. At the same time, he has reservations about how effective such measures can be.

“In the internet age, it’s impossible to control religious literature,” he explained. “In order to combat extremism, we need to educate Azerbaijanis about Islam… so as to prevent extreme Islamic trends coming in from outside.”

The parliament debate also touched on the external signs of Islamic observance. One member, Ilham Aliyev (who bears the same name as Azerbaijan’s president), said he could not stand the sight of the beards and short trousers favoured by Salafis, and said these people should be ostracised from society.

International human rights organisations have documented a number of cases where Salafis have been harassed. Apart from hinting that they are potential terrorists, the authorities are unhappy that Salafi congregations tend to avoid registering with the official body that governs Azerbaijan’s Muslims, both Shia and Sunni. (See also Azerbaijan: Sunni Groups Viewed With Suspicion.)

Emil Jafarli, 34, who studied at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, said it was unfair to mistreat people whose beards and short trousers were expressions of faith.

“It isn’t a fashion or something to be singled out; it’s an essential part of our faith,” he said. “It is absurd to isolate us because of the way we look, or to enforce rules to ban it. It would be a kind of violation.”

At his home-made stall outside Baku’s Ilahiyyet mosque, Rovshen Mehreliyev is among the freelance traders who could be affected by the new limitations on where Islamic books can be sold.

Even now, he says, “Officials come and check the literature all the time. I don’t sell anything that could harm the state.”

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.

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