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Azerbaijani Muslims Lose Faith

A rift is opening up between Azerbaijan's religious leaders and their congregations who say the mosques are doing nothing to improve their spiritual and material well-being
By Irada Husseinova

In today's Azerbaijan, religion is big business. In the atmosphere of spiritual freedom which has followed the collapse of Soviet power, the market conditions have never been better. The state is secular but tolerant, the population largely despondent and 85% of Azerbaijan's believers share a single faith.


But, in recent times, the commercial activities of the Azerbaijani mullahs have left many worshippers bewildered. And sizeable "grants" donated by other Muslim states are rarely used to improve the material well-being of the population as a whole.


Preparations for the festival of Muharram in April reflect the easy-going attitude to religion that is prevalent in Azerbaijan. Muharram is the first month of the Muslim calendar and marks a period of mourning for Imam Hussein, the murdered grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. In other Muslim countries, it is a solemn festival when weddings and other celebrations are banned and people are forbidden to dress in bright clothing.


In Azerbaijan, few of these mourning traditions are observed. Last April, Baku celebrated the anniversary of the 7th-century epic work "Dede Gorgud" and hosted the sixth summit of Turkish-speaking states.


The fact is that, in recent years, Azerbaijan's spiritual leadership, headed by Sheikh Haji Allahshukur Pashazadeh, has put little emphasis on religious training and education. It has forged a non-interference pact with the state - the mosques support the president and the president supports the mosques.


Earlier this year, for example, the Sheikh was persuaded to launch court proceedings against a range of erotic publications which had offended the public sensibilities. It didn't go unnoticed that his indignation was limited to publications printed by representatives of the political opposition.


As a result, religion in the former Soviet republic has become a fiefdom, a clan affair complete with its own bureaucracy as well as its own jealousies and intrigues. The clan is dominated by mullahs from Lenkoran, in the southern tip of the republic, the homeland of Allahshukur Pashazadeh.


This ruling cabal, the Ulem Council, holds the spiritual purse strings. It generates income from burial services, mourning services, candle sales and pilgrimages. The council has also formed its own monopolies. For example, the mullahs have managed to curtail the activities of travel firms offering cheap pilgrimages to Mecca. Worshippers hoping to make the trip can only book through the mosque and are obliged to pay the official prices. Entrance charges have also been levied on Azerbaijan's own holy places.


Sheikh Haji Allahshukur Pashazadeh claims the Ulem Council has been "forced to put prices on its services in order to maintain the mosques." But, apparently, the Sheikh has forgotten the preaching of the Prophet who said, "If the people don't want to maintain the mosque voluntarily, then it should be closed!"


Even more mystifying are the hundreds of so-called donation boxes located in most Azerbaijani towns and villages. Allahshukur Pashazadeh says they have no relation whatsoever to the mosques which would indicate that no one controls how much money is collected in them and what that money is spent on.


The Sheikh also admits openly that, of the 500 mullahs scattered across the country, only 50 actually have a genuine claim to the title: the rest are imposters. Such revelations do little to inspire confidence amongst the faithful.


However, Allahshukur Pashazadeh has devoted considerable efforts to raising his status as a religious leader in the Caucasus region. The man who, in Soviet times, was entrusted with the spiritual well-being of the Transcaucasian states has now extended his influence north, dubbing himself, "The Spiritual Leader of the Caucasian Muslims".


The ploy has been singularly effective: the war in Chechnya has highlighted the plight of the Caucasian Muslims and provided their "spiritual leader" with an ideal fundraising platform. Consequently, donations from other Muslim states pour into Azerbaijan and are managed by the Ulem Council.


How these funds are distributed is a closely-guarded secret. There are no controls on spending from any international organisations.


But, while Allahshukur Pashazadeh has been working hard on his international image, he has shown little concern for the catastrophic plight of his flock, 90% of whom live below the poverty line.


Consequently, the spiritual cabal has alienated many local believers. To the younger generation in Azerbaijan, Islam is associated with bearded and rather dim mullahs as well as prejudice, superstition and incomprehensible Arabic texts.


Some have found themselves drawn to the teachings of other religious sects -- but Allahshukur Pashazadeh has no intention of losing his congregations without a fight and is appealing to the government to outlaw these potential competitors.


A much more effective strategy would be to address the failings of Islam in Azerbaijan - but perhaps Allahshukur Pashazadeh lacks the strength to return people to the mosques, a move requiring dramatic changes to the system which he has created with such care and which serves him so well.


Irada Husseinova is a correspondent for Monitor Magazine in Baku


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