Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Azeris Shocked by Sectarian Attack
The Azerbaijani authorities are concerned about the rise of Islam, and particularly the role of neighbouring Iran. (Photo: Idrik Abassov)
A clash in southern Azerbaijan in which a follower of the Salafi strand of Sunni Islam was attacked and forcibly shaved has raised fears of sectarian violence in this largely Shia state.
There have been previous documented incidents of Salafis being forcibly shaved in Azerbaijan, often by the police, but this time, video footage of the incident went viral.
The footage, filmed on July 4 in the town of Sabirabad close to the border with Iran, showed Javanshir Zarbaliyev being punched and having his beard cut off.
“When I went to Sabirabad market, someone behind me grabbed my arm and shouted, ‘I’ve got him’ and began beating me,” Zarbaliyev, who comes from the neighbouring Kurdamir district, told RFE/RL radio. “Women and children at the market began throwing pomegranates at me, potatoes and everything they could get their hands on, and shouted abuse. Then the man beating me told someone to film it.”
The crowd then took Zarbaliyev to a Shia cleric, who instructed them to take him to the police. He says the police also shouted abuse at him.
“Azerbaijan is a stable country – we can pray here in peace. We don’t want this kind of intrigue in our country, we don’t want incidents like this. If it isn’t dealt with, things will get worse,” Zarbaliyev said.
Local man Ramzi Zeynalov, seen in the video cutting Zarbaliyev’s beard, was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct. Interior ministry spokesman Ehsan Zahidov said an investigation into the incident was continuing.
Most of Azerbaijan’s 9.5 million people are Shia Muslims, although there is a significant Sunni minority in the north of the country.
Muqaddas Paizov, of the state-sponsored Caucasus Muslim Board which oversees religious institutions in Azerbaijan, says no data is gathered on which branch of Islam people follow, precisely so as to avoid creating sectarian tensions.
The authorities in Azerbaijan have a frosty relationship with the Iranian government and frequently accuse it of promoting Shia activists. But followers of Salafism, a conservative strand within Sunni Islam, are also viewed as potential subversives. (See Sunni Groups Viewed With Suspicion.)
Hajji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a leading Shia cleric who heads a religious rights group called DEVAMM, condemned the Sabirabad attack.
“This was a tragedy for the Azerbaijani people. It is a tragedy that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, someone is not being allowed to preserve and spread his faith… no one has the right to see a bearded man and forcibly shave off his beard,” he said in a statement.
A spokesman for the government committee that works with religious organisations said the attack was being taken seriously.
“We are conducting investigations and will take steps accordingly. Any measures calculated to damage the religious situation in the country will be stopped,” the unnamed spokesman told the ANS news agency.
Haji Gamat Suleymanov, the Sunni imam of the Abu Bakr mosque in the capital Baku, said the attack was a further sign of increased radicalisation on both sides of the religious divide.
“The population of Sabirabad is not to blame. They are Muslims, too, and fellow-citizens of ours. We criticise only the people who did this, not the whole population of Sabirabad,” he said, adding that the attack was a deliberate attempt to undermine the generally amicable relations between Shia and Muslims in Azerbaijan.
In August 2008, a bomb was thrown into Suleymanov’s mosque, which is frequented by Salafis. Two worshippers were killed and another 18 injured.
Suleymanov warned that Iran’s increasing influence in southern Azerbaijan combined with the increasing radicalisation of Sunni Muslims in the north could lead to future tensions.
Suleymanov said the dangers were heightened by reports that Azerbaijanis were going off to fight in Syria and Iraq. (See Azerbaijanis on Both Sides of Syrian Conflict,)
“It’s fine for people to return to their faith, but the problem is that there is no oversight of religion or of religious instruction. That’s the reason Shias and Sunnis alike are becoming increasingly radical,” he said. “Iraq and Syria aren’t far away – you can fly there in an hour – and that means the danger is very real.”
Arastun Orujlu, director of the East-West research centre, told IWPR that government attacks on civil liberties meant more people were turning to radical Islam.
Neighbouring Muslim states were fostering this growing extremism, he added.
“These countries, which have radicalised the people under their control, are now trying to sow discord among religious confessions in Azerbaijan. The first signs of this are already apparent,” Orujlu told IWPR. “The government deliberately destroyed civil society, the media and the political opposition, and radical religious movements are moving in to fill that space. In consequence, these groups could become very powerful.”
Farid Mirzayev is a journalist with the www.lent.az news site in Azerbaijan.
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