Azerbaijan Gets Islam and Politics Right

A secular Muslim alternative in an increasingly Islamist region.

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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