Azerbaijan Gets Islam and Politics Right

The Republic of Azerbaijan and the Islamic Republic of Iran are both Muslim majority countries with largely Shiite populations. They share a common border and common heritage. However, they represent diametrically opposed approaches to the relationship between religion and government.

Iran is ruled by fanatical anti-Western and anti-Israeli mullahs. It is a theocracy where a fundamentalist Islamic ideology strictly governs all aspects of public and private life.

Azerbaijan – a majority-Turkic and Muslim country – is located at a crucial geostrategic crossroads in the South Caucasus between Russia, Iran and Turkey. It is a Western-leaning secular state that separates government and mosque and is religiously tolerant. Although Azerbaijan is 95% Muslim in population, Azerbaijan is not officially a Muslim country governed  by Islamic law.

“Azerbaijan’s secularism, religious tolerance, economic growth, and Western oriented foreign policy now form a model for the freedom loving people trapped in Iran,” wrote S.R. Sobhani, CEO, Caspian Group. “A successfully modernized Muslim state north of its border spells danger for Iran’s theocracy.”

In fact, Azerbaijan is even supplanting its neighbor Turkey as the best model of  a secular alternative for the Muslim world.  Turkey, under the rule of the religiously conservative Islamist Justice and Development Party and its leader Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has turned its back on the secular vision Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had in mind when he founded the modern nation-state of Turkey on the ashes of the collapsed Ottoman empire. Azerbaijan would be more welcoming to Ataturk today than his own homeland.

This is not to say that Azerbaijan comes anywhere close to resembling a Western-style democracy. Far from it. It was, after all, part of the Soviet Union until it achieved its independence in 1991.  Some bad habits die hard.

In the CIA’s most recent report on Azerbaijan, it described Azerbaijan’s political system this way: “Corruption in the country is ubiquitous, and the government, which eliminated presidential term limits in a 2009 referendum, has been accused of authoritarianism.”

Azerbaijan’s record with respect to freedom of speech and assembly is also problematic.

However, within the universe of Muslim majority countries, and certainly in comparison with its neighbor Iran, Azerbaijan is downright modern in its approach to freedom of religion.

In Azerbaijan, religious leaders may not simultaneously serve in public office and in positions of religious leadership. Under the constitution, persons have the right to choose and change religious affiliation and beliefs (including atheism), and to join or establish the religious group of their choice. The Law on Freedom of Religion expressly prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, although religious organizations must be registered by the government in order to be able to maintain a bank account, rent property, and generally act as a legal entity. The government is also concerned about ensuring that Iranian style theocracy, Saudi Arabian-style Wahabism or the Muslim Brotherhood’s method of fusing Islamism and politics are not imported into Azerbaijan.

Religious instruction is not mandatory in Azerbaijan. Article 6 of the Law on Freedom of Religion stipulates that the state educational system is “separate” from religion.

“It is not about Islam, but whether or not to be oppressed because of religion,” Azerbaijani ambassador to the United States Elin Suleymanov explained. “It is not a question of the presence of Islam or its absence,” he added.  What Azerbaijan rejects is the notion that “religion and ideology must dominate in the government and the political system. Oppression for religious views is unacceptable – we support freedom of religion.”

The founder of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, saw himself, and the “supreme” religious leaders who followed him, as the guardians of Islamic purity, which required a government under their stewardship that is run in strict accordance with sharia law.  Khomeini believed that “non-Muslims of any religion or creed are najess (impure).” Non-Muslims’ impurity relegates them to second class status, if not outright persecution.

All aspects of public and private life in Iran are dictated through the prism of Islamic law and ideology as defined by its supreme religious leader.  Education is a tool to help in the indoctrination of Shiite Islam for future generations. Freedom House concluded that the government of Iran is “teaching the country’s children to discriminate against women and minorities, to view non-Muslims with suspicion if not contempt, and to perpetuate the regime’s theocratic ideology.”

The treatment of Baha’is, who are members of a small nineteenth century religious sect with adherents in both Azerbaijan and Iran, illustrates the sharp contrast between Azerbaijan’s more religiously tolerant secular model and the rigid, theocratic model practiced by the Iranian regime.

In Azerbaijan, since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the modern Bahá’í population, centered in Baku (the capital of Azerbaijan), has been revitalized. In 1992, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’ís of Azerbaijan was elected, after having been effectively disbanded since 1938. In 1993 the Governing Board of the Ministry of Justice of the Azerbaijan Republic gave official permission for the functioning of the Baha’í Community of Baku.

By contrast, since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Baha’is living in Iran have been subjected to arbitrary arrests, beatings, torture, executions, and discrimination in access to education, employment and government benefits. Members of the Baha’i community in Iran are the most persecuted religious minority in the Islamic Republic, according to the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed.

Although Baha’is actually revere the prophet Mohammed and regard the Koran as a divinely revealed book, the Iranian regime considers them apostates because their religion was established after Islam and they recognize other prophets who came after Mohammed. Moreover, Baha’is believe in a direct relationship between the individual and God, removing the command and control role of cleric authority in all aspects of public and private life that characterizes the Iranian theocracy. Consequently, Iranian textbooks refer to the Baha’i religion as a “false sect” and accuse Baha’is of being tools of foreign powers.

Jews have had a long thriving history of residence in Iran, dating back to the Babylonian exile in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E.  But since the Islamic revolution in 1979, the Jewish population has declined, according to some estimates, by as much as 75 percent.  While Judaism is officially recognized as a religious minority in the Islamic Republic of Iran, which entitles Jews to certain rights such as parliamentary representation and to celebrate their own religious holidays, Jews are regularly persecuted and discriminated against in their daily lives.  Despite early promises by Ayatollah Khomeini to distinguish between Zionism as a political ideology to be expunged and Judaism as a religion to be acknowledged, that distinction has blurred.  In July 2012, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said: “My dear ones! Islam is a world religion and god has only one religion, that of Islam, he did not send Judaism or Christianity; Abraham was a harbinger of Islam, as were Moses and Jesus!”

Although Azerbaijan is 95% Muslim, it also is home to one of the most flourishing Jewish communities in the Muslim world.  There are three synagogues in Baku, and an active Jewish community with schools and cultural centers. Moshe Becker, a Jewish leader from Azerbaijan, said that in Azerbaijan “there has been no anti-Semitism and we live very peacefully, even cooperating with our Muslim and Christian brothers.”

Iran is particularly irked at Azerbaijan’s close diplomatic relationship with Israel, which commenced in 1992. “We share the same view of the world, I guess,” said Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, Michael Lotem, in an interview earlier this year with the BBC about the Azerbaijan-Israeli relationship. “For us Israelis to find a Muslim country which is so open, so friendly, so progressive, is not something the Israelis take for granted.”

Azerbaijan authorities broke up what they said was an Iranian plot to kill Israeli Ambassador Lotem in January 2012. Within a month or so after that episode, Azerbaijan’s National Security Ministry announced the foiling of another Iranian plot to attack the Israeli and U.S. embassies in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku.

Shiite and Sunni fundamentalism is triumphing throughout much of the Muslim world today. Even countries that some regard as “moderate” such as Turkey and Indonesia are feeling the chill of the spreading Islamist winter.  Indeed, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan himself said several years ago that “Turkey is not a country where moderate Islam prevails.”

Azerbaijan, with all of its imperfections, may be the one green shoot of secularism and moderate Islam in this bleak winter landscape.

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  • Larry

    Sounds like the Azeris borrowed a lot of that Constitution straight from Ataturk.

    • macedonian

      It is not Ataturk influence,but the rare positive influence of the ateism of USSR, since tge central asian former republics are just the same:)

  • Chezwick

    Azerbaijani ambassador to the United States Elin Suleymanov:

    “It is not a question of the presence of Islam or its absence,”

    On the contrary, that's EXACTLY what it is. And the fact that the Azeri Ambassador has to dance around the subject just shows how tenuous the secular experiment in Azerbaijan really is.

    Nevertheless, one can only wish the Azeris well.

    Meanwhile, two interesting side notes…

    1) Iran has supported Christian Armenia in its on-going conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. That support is realpolitic in action and the Armenians best be forewarned, should the Azerbaijani government ever Islamize, Iran will switch sides overnight.

    2) Azerbaijan secretly agreed to allow the Israelis access to its territory in order to strike Iran's nuclear facilities, but the Obama Admin. caught wind of it, went public, and the Azeris reconsidered under duress

    What a world!.

  • Anthony

    Well since its such a nice place, we should all pack up and move there. After all , America is turning extreme in the opposite direction. We are busy tearing down Christian traditions and cture like banning Christmas trees from public spaces, and referring to “B.C.”As ” B.C.E.” as this author did.

    We don’t want to offend. We just want to get along like those chummy Jews, Christians and Moslems all do in Baku. But in reality, people that different don’t long sustain harmony which is why living in a multi religious, ethnic and cultural soup always will cause far more misery and artificial fakery among the citizenry leading to a strained society anywhere in the world.

    But the West is all about fake notions and magic propositions and unprincipled exceptions. That is the fruit of perverted Christianity, and misguided utopian dreamers, that is liberals and their socialist counterparts.

    We should close ranks and let the Islamic world be Islamic and leave them and the rest of the world alone. But we can’t because the whole world is here in huge numbers.

    What a tangled web that will see our country in another great civil war in due time.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      Reading your ideas makes one think you consider Jews alien to Western culture, yet pretty much all the other immigrants who in fact form the 5th columns and are out to destroy it are the ones we need to be concerned about. The Jews are their explicit target. Divide and conquer. First comes Saturday, then comes Sunday.

      It was the ideas of Darwin that inspired the ideas of the modern collectivists today. They are the ones destroying Western power and culture, and empowering the still weak Islamic imperialist nations to help them do it.

      And you blame the Jews. That is just evil and ignorant.

      • Anthony


        How do you read my blaming Jews? I blame effective, productive liberals, who are usually white or Jewish, it doesn't matter, I don't make these things up. I've always said its your own kind often do the most harm to you, I call them traitors and useful idiots. Minorities are also inculcated in a "plantation" mentality wrapped in healthy wads of victimization conditioning and hate white America ideology, even if they've never been treated as anything but a protected, celebrated class, of just stepped foot in the country. They are here with the baggage liberals have spread far and wide, coast to coast, and to all four corners of the globe.

        America is doomed.

        But I see most modern liberals as out to get us, meaning traditional thinking Americans like myself, whose culture is evaporating before our eyes as I see myself the only white guy almost everywhere I look in my daily travels.

        Diversity and multiculturalism is out of control, not the case in Azerbaijan id be willing to wager. Without a culture defining majority, you see what America has now become.

        As for Moslems, you're right. They are the shock troops used by the above mentioned tools of whoever is in control behind the curtain. I consider THEM, not Jews of course, "alien" to Western Civilization. But you surely have not failed to notice that Western Civilization is becoming "alien" to Western Civilization thanks to socialist thinking and subversion.

        P.S. I wish knew how you possibly could misread me as blaming Jews for anything other than being in a terrible bind surrounded and isolated and lets not forget almost universally despised for I don't know what.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "But the West is all about fake notions and magic propositions and unprincipled exceptions. That is the fruit of perverted Christianity, and misguided utopian dreamers, that is liberals and their socialist counterparts."

      No sane people left I guess? The West is "all about" making you confused. Those things you cite above threaten Western culture and certainly its ability to reach political consensus on anything at a federal level. That doesn't mean there are not plenty of intelligent, well-informed people who get it. We need to reestablish rule of law and respect for the constitution. Then we can restore sanity to our education standards, build political consensus and take our place as the beacon of freedom and success throughout the globe.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "We should close ranks and let the Islamic world be Islamic and leave them and the rest of the world alone. But we can't because the whole world is here in huge numbers."

      Not quite that simple. Being Islamic means plotting for the death of the West.

  • Arius

    Azerbaijan commits mass murder of Armenians in Baku in the 1990's but if Azerbaijan looks a little secular then it's OK with the West.

    • Joseph Klein

      Armenia has occupied territory inside of Azerbaijan with Iran's backing.

  • David M

    I speak both Azeri and Farsi and aware of developments in Iran and Azerbaijan. There is nothing good to say about Iran (and turkey is on the way to become like Iran) as a corrupt, repressive, backward and terrorist state. Azerbaijan is a secular state (that is why Iran is plotting against it) with friendly relations to Israel and the West but is very, very corrupt (with no transparency), no freedom of speech, press, assembly and manipulated elections. The government beats, tortures and even kills the secular opposition but is afraid of the Islamists who want a regime in Azerbaijan like Iran. I'm for an Azerbaijan (I'm neither a citizen of Azerbaijan nor reside there) which is hard on Islamists with no mercy and I'm for an Azerbaijan free from repression and corruption.

    • Joseph Klein

      I agree 100%

      • fbc

        As soon as current strongman Alive goes away, the Islam will take over.

  • Kevin

    Azerbaizan is another common post soviet distatorship. Run by the same people ex communists. Lets not forget the horror of forces secularism forced on the azerbaizani people by the soviet russia for well nigh 60 years. Secular totalitarian regime.

  • Raymond in DC

    When I was in Iran in 1976, I was told by one of the locals that the two communities that took most advantage of the economic opportunities of that moderate era were the Bahais and the Jews – two communities historically disadvantaged. After the Islamic Revolution, the two communities most targeted were (you guessed it) the Bahais and the Jews. Treatment of the Bahais was (and remains) especially harsh, because they're deemed apostates from "true" Islam. The Jews remain the "People of the Book", but still barely tolerated, and always suspected of "Zionist" tendencies. The official "Jewish representative" in the Majlis is hardly free to speak his mind on behalf of his community, and is expected to criticize Israel as the occasion requires.

    There were close to 100,000 Jews in Iran back in the 1970s; today the number is closer to 20,000. Most who left ended up in Israel and the US (there are major communities in New York and California).

    And where did the Bahai establish their world headquarters? In Haifa. The Temple and its Gardens draw many visitors in Israel. Yet another reason the Bahai in Azerbaijan see value in connecting to Israel.

  • Jackobs

    Kevin you are not right. Azerbaijan is a state which had own model of Islam for ages. Known as center for Hurufism, Sufism, etc. praised medieval poet Nasimi for his different views – This country have been always different model. And seems more secular, than praised Turkey. Soviet Union of course played its role, which only based on what Azerbaijanis had in culture for many many years. Islamism takes steps in this country now mostly because of occupied territories (by Armenia), which ordinary people to return and unite under religious flag. Any flag in this case could unite if 1 mln. refugees will see as a tool to go back to their homeland.

  • Tan

    Azerbaijan's secularization doesn't necessarily mean that Christian persecution will end there. It was the same for the secularization of Turkey after the Ottoman Empire. Remember the Armenian Genocide? That happened under "the Young Turks" who supposedly were secular, yet slaughtered many Christians (I think it was between 1 or 2 million Armenian Christians). Even after that, during the 21st century (probably between 2004 to 2009), there was some Christian persecution in Turkey, and I don't recall anything being done by the Turkish government to stop the radical Muslims from persecuting or killing them, but I could be wrong. Other than that, I'm a little skeptical about Azerbaijan's situation. If you go to the CSSR's website (which studies countries that are former Soviet Socialist Republics) regarding Azerbaijan, you will see on one of their videos that they've invited the OIC Youth Forum to reform the country. Now of course, there are many other kinds of people that are part of the reform, OIC Youth Forum is a red flag. They are part of the OIC organization that's trying to criminalize criticism of Islam worldwide. So, we'll see just how reformed Azerbaijan is domestically.

  • Linen

    Jacobs, you are only who is giving the right picture! With no problem on it’s borders with Armenia, this country could be much better and could fight corruption and move to democracy.

  • FI264

    It’s a very insightful article with the clear articulation of most important points to be retained by those who discover this part of the world. Small comment for those who try to misleadingly explain the religious tolerance reigning in Azerbaijan with 70 years of State atheism imposed by Bolsheviks. Azerbaijan was a country of tolerant people for centuries , long before the Bolsheviks occupied Azerbaijan in 1920 and brought down the first ever parliamentarian Republic in the Muslim East. Under the Russian Empire when Jews were forbidden to buy lands, it was the Muslim community of Baku that bought a terrain for Baku Jews in order they could build a Synagogue and worship in dignity their religion. It was also an Azerbaijani Muslim philanthropist who financed on those days the construction of a Protestant church in Baku.

  • poetreearborist

    This is a narrow assessment coming from an uninformed, Harvard educated person. The Azeri people did not get the religion of Islam right. Not that Iran did, for sure. Azerbaijan may not legally be a Muslim country but the women of the country are oppressed by a male dominated culture. Talk to a girl from a village and let her educate you about the lack of women's rights she has to live with every day. And then you can shed your ignorance.