Islamic Discourses in Azerbaijan: The Securitization of “Non-Traditional Religious Movements”

Galib Bashirov. Central Asian Survey. Volume 37, Issue 1, March 2018.

In the conclusion of his analysis of the politics of antiterrorism in Central Asian regimes, Khalid (190) argued, ‘To Central Asian regimes, Islam might be the religion of the majority of the population, but it is nevertheless a problem to be solved—through management and bureaucratic control at best and through repression at worst.’ Although Khalid was referring to the Muslim countries of Central Asia, the same argument can be applied to Islam in Azerbaijan, a neighbouring country that shares the same tsarist and Soviet past and political structure as the Central Asians. Islam has become one of the greatest security concerns for post-Soviet Muslim countries. In Azerbaijan, this concern has led to the establishment of a hegemonic articulation of ‘national Islam’ through mobilization of various government institutions. The most important part of this policy is the Islamic groups’ securitization, understood as constitution ‘by the intersubjective establishment of an existential threat with a saliency sufficient to have substantial political effects’ (Buzan, Waever, and De Wilde, 25). This was carried out by creating a much-stigmatized category, non-traditional religious movements (NTRMs), and interpellating all unwelcome Islamic communities, groups and organizations into that category. Public and political fears of threats to national security and identity, along with representations of threats to regime survival, provided the necessary background to produce the NTRMs as a security concern. This was followed by a massive crackdown against them.

How were the NTRMs constructed as serious security concern? How did the crackdown against them become a legitimate undertaking? To answer these questions, I will begin with mapping out various competing discourses on Islam that emerged in Azerbaijan in the post-independence period. This section shows how certain representations of Islam that emphasized the superiority of ‘Azerbaijani Islam’, which is heavily controlled by the state, have been challenged by those that emphasized religious and political rights and freedom, Islamic purity and knowledge, and closer relations with the ruling Islamist party in Turkey. Later, I discuss the process of securitization of these movements in three steps, showing that through the securitization process, Islam in general, and Islamic movements in particular, came to be represented and understood as a societal danger in Azerbaijan. The first step was the construction, by the Azerbaijani government and other institutions, of a uniform identity category of NTRMs, and representation of otherwise different religious groups and organizations within that much stigmatized category. This was followed by constitution of the NTRMs as an existential threat to national security and the national identity of Azerbaijan through forging chains of associations between these groups and instability, chaos, degeneration and terror. In the final section, I discuss the way securitizing discourse found expression in emergency measures designed to deal with the NTRMs. These material practices involved law enforcement authorities, including security services, and served to confirm the dangerous identity of the NTRMs.

Islam in Azerbaijan

Located in the tumultuous South Caucasus, Azerbaijan borders both Russia and Iran, as well as Georgia, Armenia and Turkey. It has experienced invasions by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union and has been periodically influenced by the Persian Empire. Its interaction with these imperial powers has been crucial in shaping the national identity of today’s independent Azerbaijani Republic (Swietochowski). Since its independence in 1991, there has been an Islamic revival, along with an embrace of Islam by the state as an important aspect of national identity (Motika). However, this Muslim identity ‘tends to be based on culture and ethnicity rather than on religion’ (International Crisis Group). Islam, thus, has been ‘subordinate[d] to the state system’ and has also been ‘used by political leaders as a means of pursuing their interests’ in Azerbaijan (Valiyev, 1; see also Curanović; Ismayilov).

Although a small part of this religious revival has been due to return or re-assertion of previously suppressed religion, much of it was made possible by the influence of foreign religious groups, especially Salafists from the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Caucasus, Shia groups from Iran and Iraq, and Nurcu groups from Turkey (Goyushov). Since then, there has been much debate about the nature of these foreign groups: their goals, ambitions and ultimate potential. The primary concern of scholars has been whether these religious groups have the potential to politicize Islam in Azerbaijan and pose a threat to the secular, Western-oriented regime in the country (Cornell; Sattarov; Suleymanov and Ehrmann; Valiyev; Wilhelmsen). The main argument of these works is that the religious vacuum created by the collapse of Soviet rule in Azerbaijan, along with the growing presence of foreign religious entrepreneurs aimed at filling this vacuum, coupled with the pro-Western, yet authoritarian, regime, may lead to the rise of radical groups and concomitant politicization of Islam. Along with similar studies on Islam in Central Asia (Naumkin; Rashid), these authors have focused on social and political factors that may give rise to radical Islam in Azerbaijan. Another scholarly concern has been the fear of a Sunni-Shia split in Azerbaijan. As the country’s Muslims are divided between majority Shia (65-70%), and minority Sunni (30-35%) lines (Cornell, 21; Ismayilov, 99), it is feared that the arrival of Sunni organizations from the Arabian Peninsula, Northern Caucasus and Turkey will upset the sensitive sectarian balance and lead to sectarian clashes (Balci; Balci and Goyushov).

By taking their referent object as the nation-state, these studies have reproduced the discourse of securitization of Islamic movements in Azerbaijan by associating their activities with instability and threat. However, the securitization of these movements has not been equally problematized in the literature. As such, we do not know much about either the political process that led to the securitization of these movements, or the discursive tools that have been used to legitimize a crackdown against them. How did the state securitize the Islamic movements? What discursive tools has it used? How have Islam and these movements been associated with instability, chaos, conflict and war? This study answers these questions.

Post-Structuralist Approach to Securitization Theory

In this article, I use securitization theory to analyse how certain Islamic groups have been securitized in Azerbaijan. According to the Copenhagen School, securitization is a discursive process through which issues are constructed as an existential threat to a referent object (Buzan, Wæver, and De Wilde, 25). Contingent on acceptance of a significant audience, securitization legitimizes undertaking emergency measures to deal with the designated threat (Waever, 54). Rather than understanding securitization as a ‘speech act’ which accords a decisive final status to the actor and his words, I endorse a post-structuralist approach to securitization theory that understands securitization as a co-constitutive process ‘through which a representation of something as an existential threat becomes dominant at the expense of other representations’ (Wilhelmsen, 4; see also Wilhelmsen, Ch. 2). The post-structuralist approach places agency in the discursive practices, rather than on an actor, à la the Copenhagen School (Doty). Furthermore, securitization here is understood as an intersubjective process whereby both ‘securitizing actors’ and ‘audience’, including the ‘marginal voices’, struggle over meaning. Hegemonic discourses may fix the meaning of signs, albeit only temporarily, by excluding other meanings (Jørgensen and Phillips, 26; Laclau and Mouffe). Following post-structuralist securitization theory, I understand securitization as a discourse that is composed of a securitizing narrative and emergency measures. The securitizing narrative allows us to map out the clusters of representation deployed in a given securitization. Its sequence of elements generally begins with construction of the Other as a uniform identity category ‘through a series of signs that are linked to each other to constitute relations of sameness as well as through a differentiation to another series of juxtaposed signs’ (Hansen, 37; see also Jørgensen and Phillips, 25-30). This is followed by constitution of the Other as an existential threat to national security and national identity. Finally, these representations find their expressions in emergency measures, which in turn work to confirm the identity constructions in the securitizing narrative (Wilhelmsen, 9).

Emergence of Competing Discourses on Islam in Azerbaijan

In this section I trace the origins of the dynamic struggle for hegemony between competing discourses produced by the state and Islamic movements in Azerbaijan. The reason for the establishment of these two competing discourses lies in the post-independence social and political dynamics of Azerbaijan, especially in the arrival of religious organizations from abroad in the early years of independence. The collapse of the Soviet Union created a religious vacuum: although Azerbaijanis wanted to learn more about their religion, local religious organizations lacked sufficient personnel who could provide religious education. The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB, the main religious institution with complete control over local mullahs) was perceived by the people as a corrupt organization designed to provide intelligence on believers to the Soviet political regime (Bedford; Sattarov). Coupled with a turbulent political situation, the war with Armenia, and economic devastation, these deficiencies had crippled the capacity of traditional Islamic institutions to establish their hegemony over the religious sphere in early 1990s.

As the Aliyev government consolidated its power towards the mid-1990s, it began to intervene in religious affairs with its own articulation of Islam (De Cordier, 140). According to this discourse, there was a unique blend of Islam prevalent in the country, Azerbaijani Islam, which was part of the secular identity of the Azerbaijani people. It is understood as a cultural rather than religious component, limited to lifecycle rituals, such as burial and marriage ceremonies, and cultural traditions, such as shrine visits and saint worship (Bedford and Souleimanov, 6-8; Yunusov). Importantly, it does not extend its influence to social and political issues such as political representation, economic inequality, or corruption. It accepts the supremacy of secular values over religious ones, just as it accepts the supremacy of secular government over religious authorities. Azerbaijani Islam is tolerant, in that it accepts the peaceful coexistence of different faith groups, particularly Jews, Christians and Muslims. Finally, it is argued that Azerbaijani Islam is blind to the Sunni-Shia division, allowing peaceful coexistence as well as rejecting the religious basis for such division by dismissing the division as an innovation in Islam and hence non-Islamic (Balci and Goyushov; see also Bedford, 125-126).

The Azerbaijani government claimed that this tolerant Islam was facing a threat of corruption and degeneration due to foreign influences, particularly those arising from Iran and the Arab world, which promoted a radical Islam geared towards political power and enforcement of sharia law (Bedford, 127-129). The activities of these Iranian and Arabic preachers became a matter of contention towards the late 1990s; proselytizing by foreign nationals was officially banned in 1996 in a new Law on the Legal Position of Foreigners and Stateless Persons and amendments to the constitution (Sattarov, 130-135; see also Ismayilov, 104). In a way, Azerbaijani Islam also established a framework for the activities of religious movements that remained in the country after the expulsion of foreign nationals. Religious movements were asked to follow this framework in order to continue their activities unhindered.

During these years, the Azerbaijani government established a dominant categorization in the religious sphere characterized by a division between radical (radikal) and moderate (motedil) Islamic ideologies and movements. It began to interpellate unwelcome religious groups by categorizing them as ‘radical’. Here, ‘radical’ is defined in association with political ambition and sharia law, ignorance and backwardness, militantism and terrorism, and anti-Western and anti-secular worldviews (Ismayilov, 1-2). Most importantly, the ‘radical’ category captured the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, a political party established by Iran-educated men aimed at demolishing the secular state and creating an Iranian-style theocracy in Azerbaijan. The category also captured Arab and Iranian charity organizations suspected of propagating their Islamic ideologies in refugee camps. Finally, small groups such as the Forest Brothers and Jeyshullah, both of Salafi origin, were interpellated into ‘radical’ territory and expelled from the country.

However, despite its utility in expelling these groups, the ‘radical’ category proved incapable of interpellating most of the socially active religious groups in Azerbaijan, specifically the Shia Juma community, the Sunni Abu Bakr mosque community, and a group of ideologies and movements associated with Turkish Islam. These movements did not fit the category due to their secular approach to politics and education, or their embrace of Western ideas such as freedom of religion and the press, or their outright allegiance to the government and denouncement of terrorism.

These local groups, in turn, started formulating alternative ways of representing Islam and religion that challenged the hegemonic discourse. One line emphasized religious freedom, especially freedom of religious groups from state interference. These representations have outright challenged the CMB’s moral and bureaucratic authority over Islamic organizations and believers. While the CMB tried to establish a religious monopoly ‘through a combination of state-support and state regulation of minority religious groups’ (Froese, 61), some organizations, such as the Juma Community in Baku, refused to acknowledge its authority and did not register with the CMB. The community’s leader, Shia cleric Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, accused the CMB of ‘being a Soviet construction’, ‘stealing the donations of the believers from the mosques’ and being ruled by ignorant mullahs, and asserted that the board should not appoint spiritual leaders of religious communities (Bedford, 101-103; De Cordier, 147):

Today’s ruling government should not appoint the spiritual leaders of religious communities, nor should any democratic institution do that. … When it comes to the CMB, this is an institution created in the tsarist era. It was kept during the Soviet era as well. Traditionally, their goal has been to keep believers under their guard and make them serve the political powers. This practice has to be abandoned. … This has historically been an institution that has created impediments to the development of true Islam. (Qafqazinfo)

Such oppositional representations of the CMB has not been limited to Ibrahimoglu. Salafi groups have also refused the religious authority of the CMB, criticizing them for being corrupt and promoting a false interpretation of Islam (Bedford, 103-106).

Another line of representations emphasized public morality. While most of the Islamist groups in Azerbaijan tend to raise issues of morality in their discourses, the Salafi groups, particularly the Abu Bakr Mosque community, has been particularly forthcoming on this issue. The community considered moral degeneration the most important issue in Azerbaijani society and demanded fundamental changes in moral values, including ending corruption, bribery, adultery and alcohol consumption. Such articulations promoted a prominent role for religion in society, challenging the merely ceremonial role given to religion in hegemonic representations of Islam (Bedford, 97-100; Kotecha, 23-25).

The most problematic lines of representations emphasized political issues and connected these issues to Islamic tenets and teachings. It is important to stress that, in the hegemonic discourse articulated by the social and political elite, the term ‘politicization’ has been stretched to include ‘any upsurge of religiosity, particularly if [this religiosity] finds an expression in the rising public activism of religiously inspired groups and individuals’ (Ismayilov, 3). Therefore, although the only Islamist political party, the Islamist Party of Azerbaijan, has long been shut down by the regime, with no successor yet, the regime has been categorizing any public expression of Islam that touches on the issues of morality, corruption, authoritarianism and freedom as ‘politicization’ of religion.

While the issues of public morality and religious freedom have political connotations, some representations of alternative Islam have been outright political: religious movements directly challenged the political authority and legitimacy of the ruling regime, criticizing the latter’s authoritarianism, corruption, and repression of religious and civil freedoms. These constitute the third line of representing Islam in a challenging fashion. For example, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who also received training in human rights advocacy in Poland, has been politically involved since late 1990s. Ibrahimoglu justified his activism with reference to Western notions of human rights, such as freedom of religion, association, press and movement. The Juma Community has supported opposition political parties in most of the elections since 2003 and joined political protests against alleged vote-rigging and the hijab ban (Bedford, 122; De Cordier, 139-140).

Perhaps the most blatant expression of Islamic political opposition to the ruling regime has been that of a young Shia scholar, Taleh Baghirzade. Baghirzade is from the Nardaran region, an ultraconservative stronghold north-east of Baku. On returning to Baku from Iraq after his religious studies, Baghirzade established the Movement for Muslim Unity with his followers, most of whom were also from Nardaran. In his public speeches and sermons across the country, Baghirzade

drew parallels between Baku’s ruling elite and Egyptian pharaohs of the past or the tyrants of the modern age, including the likes of Saddam Hussein; … denounc[ed] the political establishment and call[ed] for peaceful, yet active, resistance against what he regarded as ‘the tyranny’ of the incumbent political system. (Ismayilov, 20)

Furthermore, similar to Ibrahimoglu, Baghirzade used ‘a discourse focusing on secular democracy in terms of the need for free and fair elections’ (Bedford and Souleimanov, 10) and criticized the government for abuse of human rights. Ibrahimoglu and Baghirzade’s emphasis on religious freedom (‘the people must elect their own spiritual leaders’) and human rights and democracy produced a ‘secular’ challenge against the self-proclaimed identity of the Azerbaijani government as a secular Muslim democracy in a Shia-majority country. Furthermore, by embracing these notions of secular democracy, these representations questioned the validity of the ‘radical’ label attributed to these groups.

If these communities and movements challenged the dominant discourse through direct politicization of religion, the Turkish groups have done so through indirect politicization, mainly through their relations with the ruling Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (or AKP), in Turkey. The Turkish stream of religious organizations arrived in Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. Channelled through governmental (mainly the Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet) and non-governmental organizations (Gulen and Nurcu groups, as well as Naqshbandi orders), Turkish religious influence quickly gained sympathy in both the government and the public in Azerbaijan. In contrast to the Arab and Iranian cases, the activities of Turkish groups met little opposition from the government until the early 2000s. Turkish Islam was regarded as compatible with Azerbaijani Islam because of its moderate and progressive character; it embraced Western-style and secular education and did not interfere in political affairs. Most importantly, the positive relationship that both the Diyanet and religious movements built with the Kemalist state was understood as ideal and conducive to the functioning of a secular state, as articulated in Azerbaijani Islam (Bedford, 134-140). During the early 2000s, authorities in both countries ‘praised the high-level cooperation between Diyanet and the SCWRA … and emphasised the necessity to further develop cooperation’ (Azertag). Furthermore, the influence of Nurcus and other Turkish groups in Azerbaijan tended to be downgraded and dismissed as irrelevant. For example, when CMB head Pashazade was confronted with the growing influence of Turkey in Azerbaijan’s religious life, he dismissed these claims, arguing that ‘the fact that we have five Nurcus does not mean anything’ (Azadliq). In this fertile environment, Turkish Islamic influence in Azerbaijan grew exponentially. The mosques, schools and dormitories opened by Turkish organizations reached tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis, educating them in Turkish Islam and altering the social fabric of Azerbaijan.

However, changes in the discourses of these organizations following the AKP’s rise to power in Turkey shifted the dynamics of the relationship between the Azerbaijani government and Turkish Islam. The AKP was not necessarily an Islamist party. Rather, it followed a ‘more moderate and democratic platform in post-2000 era’ (Yildirim, 73). But the party’s religious conservativism was enough to draw the suspicion of the ruling elites, who were ‘secularist in their orientation and Soviet in their mindset’ (Balci, 77). The secular image of Turkish Islam was shattered. In later years, as Kemalist influence in Turkish politics weakened, so did the Kemalist model of state-religion relations. Implicated in this change, Diyanet was also associated with the Islamist ideals of the AKP, losing some of its secular appeal. Furthermore, the close cooperation between the Gulen movement and the AKP in those years started to ring alarm bells for the Azerbaijani government about the ultimate aims of the former in Azerbaijan. In sharp contrast to previous representations of Turkish religious influence, President Ilham Aliyev expressed his growing distrust of Turkey to his American interlocutors:

Aliyev stated that Azerbaijan is ‘fed up’ with what he claims are Turkish attempts to export religious extremism to Azerbaijan, especially through the education system. He believes Turkey is losing its secularity and that this is a direct threat to Azerbaijan. He noted that Turkey exports ‘its mosques’ and its ‘agents of influence’ (Wikileaks).

If the Gulenists’ close relations with the AKP in Turkey were worrisome, their complete falling out with the government in late 2013 was followed by rapid fall of the movement from grace in Azerbaijan, given the high-level importance attributed by Azerbaijan to its close relations with Turkey. The movement’s harsh opposition to the ruling AKP government in Turkey politicized its activities in Azerbaijan thanks to the former’s media outlets, which can be easily reached from Azerbaijan, as well as suspicion on the part of some authorities that the movement will try to sever Turkish-Azeri ties (Bedford; Muradova).

All in all, these alternative representations around Islam challenged the hegemonic representations articulated by the state authorities, such as the CMB, the SCWRA and others. These representations also managed to undermine the hegemonic discourse by re-articulating the meaning of ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ in the Azerbaijani context. As a result, this categorization, which was an integral part of the hegemonic discourse, has become ineffective in interpellating unwelcome Islamic influences and discourses. A new identity category was required to negatively label these movements and establish a fresh binary opposition between the hegemonic Azerbaijani Islam and its challengers. I turn to this next.

Securitization of ‘Non-Traditional Religious Movements’

Construction of a New Stigmatized Category

The term used in official discourse is qeyri-enenevi dini cereyanlar, which translates to ‘non-traditional religious movements’. The word enenevi connotes long-established national traditions in Azerbaijan. In the religious realm, instead of the teachings of the Qur’an, or the beliefs and practices of the Muslim world, traditional Islam in Azerbaijan refers to ‘local beliefs and practices which often present a synthesis of Islam with pre-Islamic beliefs, customary norms and other non-Islamic practices’ (Yemelianova, 9). Furthermore, although the phrase uses dini (religious), instead of Islami (Islamic) to describe the movements in question, this article analyses the latter, because the phrase usually refers to Islamic movements in Azerbaijan.

By the late 2000s, the hegemonic discourse around Islam established a more powerful and all-encompassing category along ‘traditional’ vs. ‘non-traditional’ lines (ECRI Report, 10), due to the failure of the ‘radical’ category to successfully interpellate the politically challenging religious movements. The category of NTRM was constructed to include all Islamic groups outside of the traditional or folklore Islam in Azerbaijan and not sanctioned by the Azerbaijani state. Traditional Islam is considered ‘non-political’, ‘Azerbaijan-born’, and ‘not imported from outside’, while the ‘non-traditional’ is considered ‘political’, ‘destructive’, and ‘exported by foreign interests’. It is important to notice that the category of the NTRMs in official representations emerged in conjunction with growing emphasis of the state authorities on the control of religious activity in Azerbaijan. Hence, it has significant political meaning. ‘Traditional’ was chosen as a preferred category because of the overarching authority of the CMB and other government organs over the organizations and identities interpellated by that category. This is evident in the specific constellation of religious groups within the NTRM category. The category captures a vast array of groups and denominations, such as Iran-inspired Shiism (which emphasizes the institution of velayati-faqeh [guardianship of the jurist]), Wahhabism, Salafism and Turkish Sunnism, particularly Nurculuk, along with the beliefs associated with Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Hezbollah, and ISIS extremist organizations. No religious or ideological ground connects these groups to each other. As various studies demonstrate, there are important differences not only between but also within these groups in Azerbaijan (Bedford; International Crisis Group; Sattarov). For example, within Turkish Islam, the state-sponsored understanding differs greatly from non-governmental ones such as Nurcus and Gulenists (Balci). Hence, the chains of associations that constructed the NTRMs as a group were contingent, not objective. To construct these religious movements as ‘the other’, the differences within the NTRMs are ignored. All the other ways in which one could have formed groups are also ignored, which reveals the essentially political nature of group formation.

The particular representation of the NTRMs was tied to myths about the society and the country. In post-Soviet Azerbaijan, the representation of its geography and neighbouring countries has played a profound role in shaping the people’s worldview. Azerbaijan was constructed as a country that is surrounded either by ‘enemy states’, in the cases of Armenia, Iran and Russia, or by enemy groups in neighbouring countries, in the cases of Turkey and Georgia. The citizens of these countries and their ideological and religious beliefs were categorized as ‘alien’, ‘destructive’ and ‘anti-Azerbaijani’. The South Caucasus and the Muslim world are associated with ‘upheavals’, ‘chaos’ and ‘instability’. Azerbaijan, in contrast, was constructed as a land of ‘stability’, ‘development’ and ‘tolerance’.

Construction of Azerbaijan as the land of peace and stability, as opposed to the war and conflict reigning in other parts of the Muslim world, opened the discursive possibilities to connect all phenomena—belief systems, ideologies, religious sects—associated with these Muslim lands (and thus with the NTRMs) with trouble and instability. NTRMs are constructed as a single category referring to ‘the dangerous other’ in Azerbaijan. In various conferences, seminars and meetings, SCWRA officials, as well as members of the executive branche and security apparatus, have made associations between NTRMs and ‘interdenominational conflict’, ‘propaganda against Azerbaijani statism’, ‘enemies of peaceful coexistence of religions’, and ‘socio-political chaos’ (Qafqazinfo; SCWRA). By creating a binary opposition between traditional, Azerbaijani Islam in ‘us’ and foreign, non-traditional Islam in ‘them’, this hegemonic discourse labelled the followers of NTRMs as ‘strangers’ who should be excluded.

After the deterioration of relations with the West, the United States in particular, the Azerbaijani government stretched the category of enemy states to include these countries, whose political activities were also now associated with ‘chaos’, ‘conflict’ and ‘instability’. Speaking about the global tendency towards politicization of religion and its instrumentalization for political purposes, the current deputy head of the SCWRA, Seyavush Heyderov, said:

Under different pretexts, as well as under the name of defence of human rights and freedoms, the internal affairs of many countries are being intervened in by certain power centres, political circles, in order to pursue their geopolitical, geo-economic interests. This in its turn leads to great clashes, bloody conflicts, and radical deterioration of stability in those countries. We can observe the obvious examples of these processes in the Middle East, as well as in Syria. (Trend)

It is important to note that secular concepts such as human rights and freedom have also been articulated as security threats by associating these concepts with the destabilizing activities of ‘enemy states’. Such articulations tried to solve the human rights challenge raised by some religious groups, such as the Juma community, by painting Azerbaijan as a ‘tolerant’ and ‘stable’ country where members of different confessions can practise their religions freely, and where certain religious groups and Western countries are trying to ruin this stability by making false claims about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. The term ‘stability’ has become a nodal point of this discourse. As ‘traditional’ and ‘national’ are related to ‘stability’ and ‘peace’, the very word ‘non-traditional’ is constructed as the exact opposite of the former qualities and thus associated with ‘instability’, ‘chaos’ and ‘upheaval’. In other words, the dominant Azerbaijani security imagery has made the negative connotations of ‘non-traditional’ inevitable and unavoidable. A further distinction has been made between the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ Islam, where these ‘non-traditional’ communities were dissociated from the true Islam and constructed as an aberration and falsification, and associated with radicalism and terrorism (Ismayilov, 3-4).

The construction of the NTRMs as a single category referring to a ‘dangerous other’ was the key step in the securitization of every unwelcome Islamic community in Azerbaijan. The NTRMs have become a politically powerful signifier in Azerbaijan, with the capacity to connect internal security logic to the big political questions of cultural and national identity, challenges to independence, and territorial integrity. The religious space collapsed into polar opposites because the only available identities were traditional and non-traditional Islam. The state aligned itself with ‘traditional Islam’, which was ideologically and institutionally subordinated, designated it as free from oppression, and gave it a privileged status over the ‘non-traditional’ Islam.

Constitution of the NTRMs As an Existential Threat

The construction of the NTRMs as a dangerous category was followed by their constitution as an existential threat to the sovereignty of Azerbaijan. This section analyses the societal dynamics that securitize the NTRMs: ‘not a threat for what it is, but a threat for what it represents’ (Buonfino, 28). I argue that the representation of the NTRMs in Azerbaijani media and in the articulations of major policymakers and bureaucrats have played into existing social fears, which in turn were exploited by the government to adopt reductionist policies towards the NTRMs. These security articulations were developed mainly at two levels: national security and national identity. At the national-security level, the NTRMs are associated with the end of political stability and of the peaceful coexistence of various religious and secular traditions in Azerbaijan. At the national-identity level, the NTRMs are constituted as a threat to the national identity of Azerbaijanis, their interdenominational balance, and secular traditions.

National Security

The presence of non-traditional groups is articulated as a threat to the national security of Azerbaijan. Both the media and state officials have put great emphasis on actual terrorist incidents in Azerbaijan and even more so on the ‘potential’ attacks by individuals associated with the NTRMs. It is important to consider how the representations of threat emanating from activities of religious groups have evolved over the years since the 1990s. Until the late 2000s, the official representations tended to focus on the ‘foreign’ nature of extremist threat. The representations focused on the cases of Jeyshullah, Forest Brothers, al-Qaida Caucasus and al-Muwahaddin (Azadliq). These groups were mainly filled by foreigners, mostly North Caucasian nationalities or foreign-born Azeris in Dagestan. While representations of the terrorist attack by the Jeyshullah movement in 2000 emphasized the growing need to protect national borders (International Crisis Group), by 2006, officials and experts were claiming that ‘terrorist organizations are aiming to create their own networks in Azerbaijan after strengthening their hold in neighbouring regions’ (Azadliq). Representations of the bombing at the Abu Bakr Mosque in 2009 demonstrated a rupture in the hegemonic discourse in that, rather than a ‘foreign-inflicted’ attack, it was represented as ‘a clash within the Salafi community in Azerbaijan’, hence ‘importation of regional conflicts into Azerbaijan’. Increasingly, the representations began to omit the differences between Salafis in Azerbaijan and those in Northern Caucasus. And the fact that visitors to the Abu Bakr Mosque started to attend prayers at the Ilahiyyat and Shahidlar mosques after the Abu Bakr’s closure was politicized as ‘a dangerous tactic to create the crowding that led to the 2009 bombing’ (APA). Hence, by making associations between the Turkish Ilahiyyat and Shahidlar mosques and the bombing of the Abu Bakr mosque, these representation of the issue securitized the Turkish mosques in Azerbaijan, which were built in the early 1990s by the Turkish Diyanet, a Turkish government institution. This is despite the fact that these mosques used to represent the ‘moderate’ Islam in Azerbaijan spread by Turkish brethren (Sattarov). The securitization of these ‘crowds’ also follows from the accusation that they are trying to ‘take over’ mosques in Azerbaijan, hence, crippling the authority of traditional religious figures (SCWRA).

Perhaps the most common way the NTRMs are constructed as a security threat is to associate them with foreign countries and their interests. The members of NTRMs, who themselves are Azerbaijani citizens, are claimed to be ‘under the payroll of the foreign secret services’ and ‘pursuing their agendas inside Azerbaijan’ (Olaylar). This representation plays into the myths about Azerbaijani society and country, where the strategically located and mineral-rich country is targeted by foreign secret services in order to destroy social order, instigate chaos, and ultimately destroy the sovereignty of the nation. The NTRMs were claimed to be trying to replicate the Ukrainian conflict or the Syrian civil war inside Azerbaijan. When asked about the impact of NTRMs on Azerbaijan, the head of the SCWRA, Mubariz Gurbanly, said:

For us, our independence and integrity are the biggest bounties. Therefore, we have to stand against whatever threatens our independence. … Harmful viruses spread much quicker than beneficial ones. Now, because of all these, if we turn a blind eye against these movements, they will quickly turn into a serious threat to political sovereignty and the state. (ANSPRESS)

As is evident here, security discourses and policies are presented as an inevitable response to the challenges to public order and domestic stability by the NTRMs. This way of articulating the NTRMs provokes the masses by invoking deep-seated fears of ‘loss of independence’, ‘invasion by foreign powers’, and ‘instability’. If ‘invasion’ is associated with the Persian and Soviet dominations, ‘instability’ is associated with the social and political upheavals in Azerbaijan of the early 1990s and the ongoing chaos in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. The media and the government play on people’s sense of political insecurity by transmitting messages that resonate with old and middle-aged Azerbaijanis. By associating the NTRMs with terror networks, foreign secret services and enemy countries, the securitization discourse constitutes the members of these communities as ‘the ultimate other’, strips them of their Azerbaijani identity, and denies them an opportunity to belong to a society that they are born into and have lived in throughout their lives.

National Identity

In the securitization framework, identity is understood oppositionally. Who we are is determined by the designation of those from which we need protection. Following Carl Schmitt, ‘politics in general is characterised by enmity and exclusion, where the sovereign’s designation of threatening others is central to political life’ (McDonald, 578). On the identity level, the hegemonic discourse in Azerbaijan focuses on the ‘otherness’ of the NTRMs based on their different way of believing and practising Islam; their ‘allegiance’ to foreign identities is regarded as alien and dangerous. This allows the hegemonic discourse to undermine and overpower the discursive challenges raised by the NTRMs.

In Azerbaijan, Islam is regarded as part of national identity. Rather than a religion, Islam is regarded as part of cultural tradition (Motika). Islam as an attribute of national identity is asserted primarily against outsiders, notably Russians. However, with regard to other Muslim countries, Azerbaijanis also emphasize the need for ‘a specifically indigenous character of Islam as a part of the long historical process of emancipation from outside, notably Iranian, influences’ (Swietochowski, 70). Coupled with the ongoing processes of globalization and the transnational spread of foreign cultures and ideologies, the presence of NTRMs was articulated as a threat to the national identity of the Azerbaijani people. The idea of the NTRMs’ threat to national identity has grown steadily since the late 1990s in relation to representations of their rising influence of especially Wahhabis and Nurcu/Gulenists. While radical groups such as Jeyshullah and the Forest Brothers who were active in the early 2000s were regarded as threatening, they were not constructed as a threat to national identity. It was argued that these groups were ‘marginal’, and ‘have no basis in society’, and that ‘the national consciousness of Azerbaijanis is powerful enough to deter these groups’ (Unikal). In contrast, Wahhabis and Nurcus are recently portrayed as ‘insidious’ and often likened to ‘viruses’ that can infiltrate a healthy body, most importantly the national bureaucracy, army and education system (Qafqazinfo). Together with other groups in the category, the NTRMs are accused of brainwashing their members, forcing them to renounce their Azerbaijani identity and cut ties with important signifiers of national culture and tradition, such as national holidays of Novruz and New Year’s Eve, the national anthem, and historical personalities such as Babek, Akhundzadeh, and the late president Heydar Aliyev. Such accusations are abundant in statements of government officials and other personalities. For example, a pro-government political analyst, Nail Yagub, claimed that

Gradual expansion of a non-traditional understanding of religion leads to our national identity being forgotten. Because a cult is not something borne out of national identity, it is brought from outside. Certainly, for a person who falls into influence of a non-traditional cult and sect, the notion of Azerbaijanism and Motherland become meaningless. (Teleqraf)

Not only does the speaker ascribe an exaggerated amount of ideological power to the NTRMs (enough to make people forget their national identity), he also, speaking for the members of the NTRMs, makes claims about the hierarchy of belonging in the mindset of a member, that is, the movement comes first, and Azerbaijan second.

By provoking fears of ‘loss of independence’ and ‘loss of national identity’, the dominant discourse articulates the NTRMs and their members as an essential threat to the survival and well-being of Azerbaijan. Furthermore, this securitizing discourse contains a new representation of Azerbaijan. Re-articulation of the Other is accompanied by a re-articulation of the Self (Wilhelmsen, 78). Azerbaijan starts to be portrayed as the ‘target’ of an all-out assault and ‘under constant threat’. This is in contrast to earlier representations of Azerbaijan as mainly a ‘transit’ country for extremist groups. But this novel representation is built on a rather older and consistent one in which Azerbaijan is portrayed as being targeted by foreign powers due to its strategic location and lucrative energy resources.

Emergency Measures

The signifying practices analysed above have found expressions in and legitimized emergency measures against the NTRMs, such as raids of private homes, closing of mosques and religious institutions, arrest and/or expulsion of individuals from the country, and sometimes even torture. These emergency measures, in turn, served ‘to constitute and confirm the identity constructions in the securitizing narrative’ (Wilhelmsen, 9).

In Azerbaijan, the regulation of religious life has increasingly emphasized the need for restrictions on and increased control of the activities of Islamic groups. Changes in the Law on Religious Freedom in 1996 subordinated all Islamic communities to the CMB. The registration of Muslim communities became the prerogative of the CMB, as they had to receive CMB approval before applying for Ministry of Justice registration (Sattarov, 162). But this registration process has an ad hoc character and did not help establish control over the various Islamic communities. Right after its establishment in 2001, the SCWRA announced that all religious communities had to renew their registration, this time with it. In legal terms, failure to register stripped the communities of their status as legal entities that could buy or rent property and open a bank account. But in practice, the new registration requirement also had security implications. Communities that refused or failed to register faced government pressure to register or face dissolution. Those communities designated as ‘non-traditional’ have been explicitly targeted by this restrictive registration process (US State Department).

The registration process was securitized to allow the state to delegitimize non-registered communities and connect them to radical groups and ideologies. In his statement to pro-government, a SCWRA spokesperson argued, ‘We observe that the troublesome issues of late are related to the very communities that have not registered with the state. Among those troubles are radical groups’ pulling of the youth, their illegal propagation, call for jihad’ (Azxeber). Lack of registration was often used as a justification for raids and subsequent closure of the mosques believed to be frequented by the members of NTRMs. When police forces raided and closed the Juma Mosque in March 2004, the most important official base for the action was that the community had not registered with the SCWRA (Peuch). In 2009, the Fatima Zahra mosque, the only mosque for a residential district of 70,000 people in Baku, was forcibly closed by authorities after the mosque community’s application for official registration was rejected. The same year, the Juma Mosque in Gyanja, the only Sunni mosque in the city, was shut down for the same reason (Corley).

The SCWRA has evolved into a part of the security apparatus of the country, with an existential goal of controlling the activities of the NTRMs. The new Strategic Plan of the SCWRA for 2014-2020 declared as its primary objective ‘to confront the potential influence on religious institutions and prayer sites of radical religious groups and non-traditional religious movements … and to strengthen measures towards their complete demobilization’ (SCWRA, 11). Most of the raids on mosques and private homes are accompanied by SCWRA officials.

The 2009 amendments to the law in 2009 introduced new clauses which stated that ‘a religious institution can be revoked by the court in case of … violation of societal security and societal rule’ (Law). The law does not specify what is meant by ‘societal security’, leaving it to the interpretation of officials. Another clause effectively banned performance of Islamic prayers by Azerbaijani citizens who received religious education outside Azerbaijan. This controversial measure targeted the religious leaders of the NTRMs, who are predominantly foreign-educated. In fact, almost all of the religious leaders of Turkish, Iranian and Salafi organizations were educated outside the country. By not allowing these communities to register with their actual leaders, the new law delegitimized the work of these communities. The SCWRA’s head, Orujov, justified the new rule by claiming that ‘the religious education of those Azerbaijanis who study outside are funded by foreign countries … who are interested in politicizing religion and using it for political objectives’ (Musavat).

Having a non-Azerbaijani citizen or a foreign-educated Azerbaijani citizen as a preacher/imam has often been used as a justification for raiding mosques, forcing them to change their leadership, or outright closing them down. The government closed the Shahidlar Mosque, in the centre of Baku, in 2009. It was built and operated by the Turkish Diyanet. In 2011, all remaining Turkish mosques, the Faculty of Theology at Baku State University, and the Diyanet High School were handed down to the state authorities after dismissal of Turkish officials from management positions. In 2014, the government authorities conducted raids on Baku’s Ashur (formerly Lezghi), Garachukhur and Mehdiabad mosques and ‘detained an unspecified number of Salafi members’ suspected of preaching and leading prayers (US State Department, 7).

Moreover, the religious literature used by the NTRMs has been securitized by various legal and institutional means. Shortly after its establishment, the SCWRA created a separate branch to detect ‘harmful, radical’ literature and prevent its import. As in Uzbekistan, the ‘relevant terms and phrases are nowhere defined’ for what makes a given publication ‘harmful’ or ‘radical’ (Khalid, 177). It is also unknown which books and articles are on the blacklist of the SCWRA, as it has never been published. Furthermore, in 2011, article 167 of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan was amended to provide up to five years of imprisonment for ‘producing, importing, exporting, or disseminating without appropriate consent religious literature (in paper or electronic formats), audio and video materials, goods and merchandises and other information materials with religious topics’ (Criminal Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan, 65). The banned books included Shia and Salafi literature, as well as books by Said Nursi and Fethullah Gulen, two of the most influential religious figures representing Turkish Islam in Azerbaijan. Armed police and security services personnel have raided multiple houses where followers of Nursi and Gulen gathered, only to ‘seize’ illegal religious literature and detain those in possession of them (US State Department). Therefore, in practice, judicial bodies have convicted those in mere ‘possession’ of unauthorized literature.

Finally, the securitization of the NTRMs is carried out through mobilization of specific institutions that are part of the security apparatus of the state. When the police and the Ministry of National Security (successor of the Soviet KGB) take a prominent role in the regulation of religious communities, this makes the issue of religious communities problematic. These institutions ‘have a professional disposition to represent and categorize a policy concern in a security discourse and to propose security measures to deal with it’ (Huysmans, 757). These emergency measures, which are popularized by constant media attention to police raids and arrests of worshippers (as though they are caught in a criminal activity), confirm the identity of the NTRMs as dangerous groups.


In this article, I have tried to capture the complex dynamics of the securitization process through which the NTRMs are constituted as an existential threat to the national security and national identity of Azerbaijan. I have showed how the securitizing discourse found expression in emergency measures designed to deal with the NTRMs. These material practices involved law enforcement authorities, including security services, and served to confirm the dangerous identity of the NTRMs. It is important to notice that the securitization of NTRMs in Azerbaijan is part of a much broader securitization process taking place across the former Soviet Union, from Russia to Uzbekistan and from Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan. Many times, the very political fears that feed into the securitization of Islamic movements in post-Soviet countries guide scholarly works in the field, which helps expand the securitization process into academia. The critical literature needs to attend to the processes that affect Muslims who want to express their religious beliefs without fear of persecution and societal stigma. This article was a necessary first step, but there is much more research to be done.