Political Islam in the Former Soviet Union: Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan Compared

Emmanuel Karagiannis. Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict. Volume 3, Issue 1. 2010.

The rise of political Islam in the Caucasus and central Asia has been an issue of concern for regional governments and the international community. Here I compare Islamist experiences and government responses in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan to show that political Islam in the two countries is neither coherent nor monolithic. Historical, cultural and political reasons explain why political Islam is stronger in Uzbekistan than in Azerbaijan.


Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the establishment of new Muslim-majority states in the Caucasus and central Asia has raised important questions about the rise of political Islam and the appropriate state response to it. Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan are two former Soviet republics which, for different reasons, have increasingly attracted international attention in recent years: the former is located at the heart of central Asia and has the largest Muslim population in the region, whereas the latter possesses large quantities of oil and natural gas.

The transition to independence was problematic for the two countries. In Azerbaijan, the overthrow of Ayaz Mutalibov, a Soviet-installed ruler, brought new presidential elections; the chairman of the nationalist Azerbaijan’s Popular Front (APF), Abulfaz Elchibey, was elected president in May 1992. Favoring defense alliances with Turkey and the USA, Elchibey pledged to pull Azerbaijan out of the Russian-controlled Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). He attacked Tehran by supporting the unification between Azerbaijan and Azeri-populated Iranian territories, and vowed to keep state and religion apart (Hiro, 1998, p. 20). Elchibey only lasted a year. He was forced to leave office by an armed uprising in June 1993 and was replaced by former Communist Party leader Heydar Aliyev. In October 1998, Aliyev was re-elected president for five more years. In October 2003, he was replaced by his son, Ilham Aliyev, who has ruled the country ever since.

Unlike Azerbaijan, the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan has been ruled by the same person since the early 1990s. In March 1990, Islam Karimov was elected president of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic by the republic’s parliament. In late December 1991, Karimov was elected president of independent Uzbekistan for a five-year term, but a March 1995 referendum extended his tenure as president until 2000. He was re-elected in early January 2000 in an election that the international community deemed to be rigged and far from adhering to international standards on civil and political rights. Karimov won the subsequent presidential election of December 2007, in which he faced no serious opposition.

Islam is by far the dominant religion in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. At the end of the seventh century and the beginning of the eighth century, Arab invaders converted the local population to Islam, and since then the Muslim faith has become an integral part of the Azeri and Uzbek culture. Yet, Islam in these two countries is far from being monolithic.

The majority of Azeris are Shia Muslims, but there is also a large Sunni community. Since there are no official statistics about the religious affiliation of Azeri citizens, there is only speculation about the exact number of Sunni and Shia in the country. According to a survey conducted by the Baku-based Institute of Peace and Democracy in 2003, approximately 58 percent of respondents considered themselves as simply “Muslims,” as opposed to 30 percent who answered “Shia Muslim” and 9 percent who identified as “Sunni Muslim” (Yunusov, 2004, pp. 274-275). However, it seems that 65-75 percent of the population are Shia Muslims and 30-20 percent are Sunni (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2009).

Many versions of the Muslim faith have been practiced in Uzbekistan, but Uzbeks are primarily Sunni Muslims. Nevertheless, Uzbek Islam is rather unique, since it includes many non-Islamic elements from other religions such as Zoroastrianism. There is also a Shia community of approximately 300,000 people that has historically maintained ties to Iran, as well as a small Ismaili community in Bukhara and Samarkand (Rotar, 2004).

Both Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan have witnessed a vast increase in Islamic activity, particularly in the construction of mosques and medressas since the early 1990s. Simultaneously, Islamist groups have emerged in the two countries, challenging post-Soviet Azeri and Uzbek leaderships. But political Islam, defined as an attempt to link religion and politics by way of resisting government (Ayubi, 1991, p. 123), has taken different forms in the region. In Azerbaijan, Islamist groups have remained largely on the sidelines, whereas Uzbek Islamists have violently confronted the Karimov regime.

There is a growing literature on the rise of political Islam in the former Soviet south (Crosston, 2006; Haghayeghi, 1995; Hiro, 1994; International Crisis Group, 2008; Jonson & Esenov, 1999; Khalid, 2007; Naumkin, 2005; Olcott, 2007; Rashid, 2000; Ro’i, 2001; Sagdeev & Eisenhower, 2000). Most works describe the emergence of political Islam country by country; with little attention to comparing Islamist experiences and government responses in different countries. Judged by the figures for jailed Islamists given by the US Department of State, as well as the number of terrorist attacks attributed to Islamists, political Islam appears stronger in Uzbekistan. In Azerbaijan there are currently only a handful of jailed Islamists and there has never been a terrorist attack by Islamists; indeed, the only serious terrorist attack in Azerbaijan was staged by Lezgin separatists in 1994.

This paper will examine the reasons for differences between Azeri and Uzbek “political Islams.” For the purpose of analysis, the study will employ a historical-cultural approach. It begins by examining Islam before and during the Soviet period. It provides a description of political Islam in post-Soviet Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Then, this description is used to compare and contrast state responses to Islamists. For source material, the analysis relies on several interviews with Islamists, imams, academics and diplomats as well as the existing bibliography.

Islam Before and After the Russian Revolution

Both Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, as parts of the Caucasus and central Asia respectively, fell victim of the Russian imperial drive in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Russia first invaded Azerbaijan in 1723 when Peter the Great launched his Caspian campaign but Persia regained the area one year later. In 1796, the Russian army returned to Azerbaijan, battling Persian forces. In 1828, finally, the Russian-Persian treaty of Turkmenchay divided historical Azerbaijan along the Araxes river.

The Russian presence in central Asia dates back to the late seventeenth century when the tsarist army established its first military outposts in western Kazakhstan. Following its unexpected defeat in the Crimean War by the British and French in 1854, the Russian army invaded the region of Turkistan (present-day Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan), which included at that time the Emirate of Bukhara, and the Khanates of Khiva and Kokand.

The Russian imperial expansion eastwards and southwards was driven by factors ranging from national prestige to the need for new markets and raw materials. Moscow was not interested in imposing a cultural hegemony over the Muslim populations. Therefore, the tsarist administration allowed Uzbeks and Azeris to practice their Muslim faith. In fact, Muslims were not considered Russian citizens and as a result they did not have the same privileges and obligations (e.g., military service) as Russians.

The inflow of Russian settlers and the extensive use of the Russian language among the region’s intelligentsia facilitated the spread of new ideas in central Asia. The Jadid (‘new’ or ‘modern’ in Arabic) movement was formed at the beginning of the twentieth century by liberal ulema (scholars of Islam) to further the modernization of the Muslim educational system. Jadid followers believed that the Muslim faith must respond to the cataclysmic changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution; as a result, they demanded curriculum reform in medressas to include teaching of history and geography, as well as positive sciences. The rise of the Jadid movement had also political consequences since it increased Muslim awareness in central Asia in the 1910s and 1920s. According to Edward Allworth, however, “the concept of nationalism remained absent from the consideration of most Jadids” (Allworth, 1998, p. 69).

The Jadid movement had only a limited influence in Azerbaijan because there was a strong tradition of secular nationalism, dating from the mid- to late nineteenth century. Azerbaijan, the oldest known oil-producing country in the world, had experienced an oil boom by 1870. The establishment of a powerful merchant and industrial bourgeoisie in Baku, which interacted with foreign investors and competed with local Armenians and Russians, contributed significantly to Azeri identity formation. Religion was pushed aside due to the Sunni-Shia divide; instead secularism and Turkic ethnic bonds were emphasized. Newspapers such as Ekinci and Molla Nasriddin offered platforms for secular Azeri intellectuals, such as Ali Merdan Topcubasi (1895-1981) and Ali Bey Huseyinzade (1864-1941) to criticize Shia rituals such as Ashura and religion’s influence in people’s day-to-day life (Balci, 2004, p. 206).

The increased influence of pan-Turkism among Azeri intellectuals and bourgeoisie meant that Islam, and its more inward-looking Shia variant in particular, played a minimal role in political life. Interestingly, cosmopolitan Baku, with its large Armenian and Russian communities, became susceptible to the socialist ideology. In 1905, the Muslim Social Democratic Party (better known as Hummet) was established in Baku. The party adopted Marxist theory and rhetoric, emphasizing class struggle and internationalism.

The collapse of the tsarist regime had cataclysmic consequences for the Muslim-populated areas. Although Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan went down similar paths, there were some differences in the way they reacted to the emerging Bolshevik movement. In late November 1917, the Fourth Central Asian Muslim Congress in the Uzbek city of Kokand led to the establishment of the Provisional Government of Autonomous Turkistan. In mid-February 1918, however, the Bolsheviks crushed the Muslim government in Kokand, resulting in the massacre of the local population. On 30 April 1918 the Moscow-controlled Turkistan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was established, incorporating much of the territories of contemporary Uzbekistan. From the beginning, most central Asian Muslims, particularly the ulema class, deeply mistrusted the Bolsheviks. The Basmachi movement was created in the aftermath of the Kokand massacre, fighting a bloody guerrilla war against the Red Army in the Ferghana and Pamir regions until 1924.

In Azerbaijan, the fall of the tsarist regime and the subsequent political chaos provided the long-awaited opportunity for national independence. Against all odds, the Republic of Azerbaijan was proclaimed on 28 March 1918. The Musavat party, which espoused a moderate nationalist ideology, dominated the Azeri parliament together with the Muslim Social Democratic Party and other small political parties. Independent Azerbaijan was the first Muslim country to extend suffrage to women; members of the parliament were elected on the basis of proportional representation, and special seats were reserved for ethnic minorities. In addition, the Azeri government united the separate Sunni and Shia spiritual boards that had been established in the 1870s by the tsarist administration and abolished sharia courts (Goyushov, 2008, p. 67). By 1920, however, the Bolsheviks had consolidated their power sufficiently to invade Azerbaijan, which became a part of the USSR.

The Bolsheviks sought to lessen the influence of Islam in the Caucasus and central Asia; as a result, most of Azerbaijan’s and Uzbekistan’s mosques were forcibly closed in the 1920s. Τhe new revolutionary regime also confiscated the Waqf (religious endowment) property in the Muslim-populated areas. A Waqf was usually arable land or buildings. The revenue of Awqaf (plural of Waqf) was directed primarily to the maintenance of mosques. In 1928, the organization Union of Godless Zealots was established by the communist regime to propagate scientific atheism, and Islamic practices such as circumcision and fasting were declared “primitive” and “unhealthy.” In 1935, Moscow prohibited Soviet Muslims from participating in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

After invading the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Wehrmacht called on Soviet Muslims to desert from the Red Army and join its special units. As a result, tens of thousands of Muslims defected from the Red Army to the German side, because they were tempted by hopes of independence if the Nazis won the war. The Kremlin understood that it was time to ease the persecution of Islam. In October 1943, therefore, the Spiritual Board of Central Asian Muslims (SADUM was the Russian acronym) was established in Tashkent, to function as the official governing agency for Islamic activities in central Asia. In addition to SADUM, the Soviet government established boards for Muslims living in Siberia and European Russia, the North Caucasus, and the Transcaucasus. All boards were Sunni-oriented apart from the one in the Transcaucasus, which was Shia.

In the early postwar period, the persecution of religion resumed in the Muslim-populated Soviet republics, but the four spiritual boards were allowed to function as a convenient means of monitoring Islamic activity. The death of Stalin in 1953 did not lessen the communist regime’s determination to uproot the Muslim faith from the Caucasus and central Asia. Indeed, anti-religious campaigns were launched throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Later Moscow viewed the “official Islam” of spiritual boards as a tool to strengthen its grip on the region and to further Soviet foreign policy aims in the Middle East and North Africa.


In 1979, there were only about 150 officially registered mosques in Uzbekistan (Bennigsen & Wimbush, 1986, p. 60). The scientific atheism propagated by communist cadres was ineffective because Islamic practice had continued underground (Abduvakhitov, 1993, p. 81). Therefore, the Soviet-approved spiritual board coexisted with a network of religious communities which had no official recognition, including many Sufi orders and a large number of self-appointed ulema and imams, who preserved shrines and presided over funerals, weddings and other ceremonies and rituals (Olcott, 1995, p. 84). This underground world represented a “parallel Islam.” Interestingly, the Tashkent-based spiritual board grew more conservative in its attitude towards pre-Islamic practices and traditions. According to Martha Brill Olcott, fatwas issued by SADUM in the 1960s and 1970s were influenced by Saudi (presumably Salafi) literature (Olcott, 2007, p. 11).

More importantly, a number of clandestine study groups were set up in Uzbekistan’s Ferghana valley in the late 1970s. Hakimjon Qari, a prominent Muslim scholar, established a study group in which he taught the Salafi version of Islam. Rakhmatullah Qari Allama and Abduvali Mirzoev were two of Hakimjon’s most active students in the city of Margilan in 1978. However, they eventually cut ties with their teacher, accusing him of collaborating with the communist authorities. Rakhmatullah and Mirzoev taught in clandestine schools the ideas of Hasan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) and Sayyid Qubt (an Egyptian Muslim fundamentalist scholar). Both apparently favored the establishment of an Islamic state.

Gorbachev’s reforms unleashed a wave of Islamic activism in Soviet Uzbekistan. In early 1989, demonstrations were held in Tashkent against SADUM’s mufti, Shamsuddin khan Babakhanov. The demonstrators demanded his immediate resignation, because Babakhanov had not fulfilled his duties as a Muslim leader. The Uzbek authorities finally replaced him with Mukhammad Sodyk Yusuf, a Muslim scholar who was the head of the Al-Bukhari Islamic Institute. The overthrow of Babakhanov raised an Islamist consciousness about the power of the “Muslim Street” that later led to confrontation with the post-Soviet Uzbek authorities.


In the early 1980s, there were only 22 functioning mosques in Azerbaijan served by small number of state-approved imams (Yunusov, 2004, p. 156). As in Uzbekistan, the persecution of the Muslim faith only strengthened the population’s religiosity, which turned to the parallel Islam. Indeed, many Azeris perceived devotion to Islam as the last barrier to assimilation into Soviet society. With the help of self-taught ulema and imams, as well as Sufi leaders, a large portion of the population continued to practice Muslim customs and rites. The Baku-based spiritual board appeared willing to accommodate practices such as ziyorat (shrine pilgrimage) and saint worship, which clearly defy the tenets of the Quran. According to Sofie Bedford, the Transcaucasian spiritual board even granted legal status to certain shrines in order to “institutionalize” the parallel Islam (Bedford, 2009, p. 81).

Yet, the rebirth of Azeri nationalism was a secular event; Islam played no role whatsoever. In September 1989, Azerbaijan became one of the first Soviet republics to declare its sovereignty; two months earlier the APF had been established by intellectuals and students. The APF’s program only mentioned that it supported “freedom of expression and faith … all religious monuments should be restored and delivered at the disposal of the believers” (Central Asia and Caucasus Chronicle, 1989). The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the sovereignty of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave came to dominate the agenda of the Azeri independence movement. Despite the religious difference between the two sides, however, Islamic slogans and symbols were almost absent from Azeri protests, because the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute was largely perceived as a territorial conflict.

Both Azeri and Uzbek societies went through the painful experience of forcible secularization. Although the two countries had the privilege of hosting Muslim spiritual boards (albeit with different orientations), the Soviet-approved official Islam was perceived as an agent of social control. Therefore, a parallel Islam was created in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Yet, the politicization of the parallel Islam occurred only in Soviet Uzbekistan; in the Azeri case, the parallel Islam maintained its folk character.

Political Islam in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan


Uzbekistan faced an Islamist rebellion as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. In December 1991, a group of Muslim activists seized the communist headquarters in the city of Namangan after the local authorities refused to give them land upon which to build a mosque. When Karimov visited the city, he was confronted by Islamists who demanded the imposition of sharia across Uzbekistan. Juma Namangani, a veteran of the Afghan war against the Russians, and Tohir Yuldoshev, a self-taught alim (singular form of ulema), soon after established their own organization, Adolat (“Justice”), which called for the establishment of an Islamic state (Babadzhanov, 2002, p. 43). However, the Karimov regime banned Adolat in March 1992 and arrested many Uzbek Islamists.

Adolat’s leadership fled to neighboring Tajikistan and joined the United Tajik Opposition, a coalition of political parties dominated by the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, which had been fighting since 1992 against the neo-communist regime in Dushanbe. When the Tajik civil war ended in 1998, Uzbek Islamists moved to Afghanistan and formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The group has espoused jihadi Salafism, as represented by its statements and videos circulating on the Internet.

The IMU launched a campaign of terror against the Karimov regime. On 16 February 1999 six car bombs targeted government buildings in Tashkent, killing 16 people and wounding more than 100 others. In August 1999, IMU fighters crossed from Tajikistan into southern Kyrgyzstan and fought the Kyrgyz army. The IMU was almost destroyed by the US invasion of Afghanistan. It appears that Namangani was killed during an air strike in Afghanistan in November 2001. The surviving members of the group, under the leadership of Yuldashev, took refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Estimates of the number of IMU guerillas have ranged from several hundred to several thousands (Weitz, 2004, p. 506). Yet, the IMU is far from being defeated; the Islamic Jihad Union, a faction of the IMU, allegedly launched the March 2004 attacks against the Uzbek police in Tashkent and the July 2004 suicide bombings against the Israeli and US embassies and the general prosecutor’s office, again in Tashkent.

Ironically, the Afganization of the IMU created a vacuum that another Islamist group rushed to fill. The Palestinian-originated Hizb ut-Tahrir became active in Uzbekistan in the early to mid-1990s. The group aimed to re-establish peacefully the historical Caliphate in order to unite all Muslims in a single state. By the late 1990s, Uzbekistan became the hub of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s activities in central Asia, but after the February 1999 IMU attacks, arrests of Hizb members escalated dramatically. Since then, the security crackdown on Hizb’s activities has probably forced its leadership to move its headquarters to southern Kyrgyzstan (former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, personal communication, Namangan, Uzbekistan, August 2005). Based on interviews with security officials and group members, as well as extrapolating from the number of arrested members in the country, the author estimates that there are around 10,000-15,000 Hizb ut-Tahrir members and many more sympathizers in Uzbekistan.

Hizb ut-Tahrir has already experienced two splits in Uzbekistan. In the early 1990s, members of Hizb ut-Tahrir from the Uzbek part of the Ferghana valley established Akramiya, named after its founder Akram Yuldashev. Although initially Akramiya proclaimed itself a nonviolent group, some of its members allegedly participated in the Andizhan uprising in May 2005. In 1999, the Hizb an-Nusra (“Party of Victory”) seceded from Hizb ut-Tahrir in the Tashkent area (Khamidov, 2003). The breakaway group rejected Hizb ut-Tahrir’s commitment to peaceful methods and advocated violence as a method of political change.

To sum up, political Islam in post-Soviet Uzbekistan has both violent and non-violent content but it is exclusively Sunni in character. Despite the international links of the IMU and Hizb ut-Tahrir, the rise of political Islam in Uzbekistan is largely a native phenomenon. The clandestine study groups established in the Ferghana valley in the late 1970s paved the way, ideologically, for the arrival of better-organized Islamist groups in the 1990s. Uzbek Islamists have adopted different political methodologies, ranging from terrorism to political action, but share a common goal: the establishment of an Islamic state.


Political Islam has been more diverse in Azerbaijan, consisting of three groups: Iranian-oriented Shias, the Salafis and the Nurcu. To begin with the first group, the Shia-dominated Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA) was established, with the apparent help of neighboring Iran, in 1992 or 1993. The IPA initially managed to infiltrate camps of Azeri refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas, but the Aliyev regime banned the party in 1995, and its leaders were arrested on charges of pro-Iranian espionage.

Since the early 2000s, there has been a strong revival of Shiism among the younger generation of Azeris. In summer 2002, residents of Nardaran, a village in the Apseron Peninsula which is considered by many as an Islamist bastion, began a series of protests demanding solutions for their economic and social problems. The Azeri police crackdown on protestors resulted in one death and several injuries. Although the protests were not religiously motivated, religious slogans were shouted and local Shia leaders apparently joined the protestors. A local imam attributed the police crackdown to “government Islamophobia” (local imam, personal communication, Nardaran, Azerbaijan, 2009).

Moreover, young Shia ulema have been increasingly eager to participate in public affairs. In December 2003, the Iranian-trained Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu of Baku’s Juma mosque was arrested and released from prison several months later. Since then, Ibrahimoglu has campaigned for more freedom of expression in Azerbaijan through the Juma mosque-affiliated Center for Protection of Religion and Freedom (DEVAMM) (I. Ibrahimoglu, personal communication, Baku, Azerbaijan, April 2009).

Ibrahimoglu has not refrained from expressing political views; for instance, he has been highly critical of the Azeri military participation in the Iraqi war. In February 2006, the young Shia leader stated:

Three years ago, the issue was about fighting Saddam, but today this issue has disappeared. Those forces which entered Iraq in the name of democracy and human rights are far away from these values themselves. That is why the Azerbaijani army should not be among these forces which have a negative image. Why can’t Azerbaijan withdraw its forces, if Poland and Ukraine did so? We must all demand that Azerbaijan pulls back its forces from Iraq. (Cornell, 2006, p. 61)

In addition, anti-Israel protests over the wars in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip took place in Baku in July 2006 and January 2008 respectively. In both cases, protestors from the banned IPA were dispersed by police. The mobilization of Muslims for Islam-related issues has been encouraged by Tehran, which seeks to increase its influence in the region. Through the Seher (i.e., “Morning”) TV station, which broadcasts anti-nationalistic and anti-secularism messages in the Azeri language, the Iranian propaganda has reached devout Shias.

The second Islamic group in Azerbaijan is the Salafis. The first Salafi preachers reached north Azerbaijan from the neighboring north Caucasian autonomous republics of Dagestan and Chechnya where Salafi Islam had grown some roots (Valiyev, 2005). After the outbreak of the second Russo-Chechen war in August 1999, Chechen refugees who practiced Salafi Islam found refuge in Azerbaijan. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that most of the Salafi literature that was initially circulated in Azerbaijan was written in Russian. Since the early 2000s, however, there has been a demographic change within the Salafi community: most followers are now Azeri-born. Interestingly, ethnic minority groups such as Avars and Lezgins have a strong presence within the Salafi community, as do individuals of Russian ethnicity (personal communication, L. Alieva, Center for National and International Studies, Baku, Azerbaijan, April 2009).

There is only speculation about the number of Salafi followers in Azerbaijan, with estimates of their number ranging from a few thousands to 25,000-30,000 (Yunusov, 2004, pp. 251-3). According to Arif Yunusuv, an expert on Azeri Islam, it is possible that Salafi groups currently control around 100 mosques in the country (A. Yunusov, personal communication, Baku, Azerbaijan, April 2009). Moreover, there is evidence that Azeri Salafis have received financial support from Persian Gulf countries and Arab private donors (Western diplomat, personal communication, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2009). Tensions between the Azeri authorities and the Salafi community were exacerbated by a grenade attack against the Salafi-oriented Abu Bakr mosque in August 2008, which resulted in three deaths (Valiyev, 2008). The subsequent closure of the Abu-Bakr mosque has not diminished the Salafi community in Baku; on the contrary, Salafi followers have found refuge in other mosques such as the Lezgin mosque in the old city.

The third Islamic group that has been active in the country is the Nurcu movement, named after Said Nursi (1878-1960), an Islamic scholar of Turkish origin. The Azeri authorities have tolerated, if not encouraged, the activities of the Nurcu movement, presumably because the Nurcu espouse moderate Islam and could act as a counterbalance to Iranian influence. The Elchibey government was suspicious of the Shia clerical establishment, considered Iranian-trained preachers as a potential fifth column, and therefore invited Turkish religious organizations to establish a presence in the country (I. Ibrahimoglu, personal communication, Baku, Azerbaijan, April 2009). Nurcu followers have mostly focused on education and have refrained from any criticism of the Aliyev regime. Their beliefs have also been disseminated via the TV channel Samanyolu and the radio station Burj-FM. Yet, the growing presence of Nurcu has become a source of resentment for some Shia Muslim leaders.

To summarize, political Islam in Azerbaijan consists of both Sunni and Shia groups, a reflection of the country’s mixed population. It is clear that pro-Iranian Shias and Sunni Salafis share fundamentally different Islamist visions: the former have envisioned an Azerbaijan where Islam will play a far greater role in public life; the latter have aimed at the Sunnification of Azerbaijan and the establishment of an Islamic state. The Turkish-originated Nurcu have a less obvious political goal: the de-Sovietization and Turkification of Azerbaijan. In any case, foreign countries have played a significant role in the growth of political Islam in Azerbaijan: neighboring Iran has supported Azeri Shias, Persian Gulf countries have sponsored Azeri Salafis, and the Turkish government has collaborated with the Nurcu movement. Therefore, political Islam in Azerbaijan is largely an exogenous phenomenon.

State Responses vis-à-vis Political Islam

Both Uzbek and Azeri constitutions proclaim that the state is secular and do not recognize any religion as official. More specifically, Article 61 of the 1992 Uzbek constitution implicitly delineates Uzbekistan as a secular state by stating that “religious organizations and associations shall be separated from the state and are equal before law,” while Article 31 guarantees freedom of religion and protects the right to manifest a religion. The 1995 Azeri constitution states that “the Republic of Azerbaijan proclaims itself a democratic, secular, legal and social state whose highest values are an individual, his life, rights and freedoms” (Article 1).

The secular orientation of the two constitutions can be explained by a number of factors. First, Islam Karimov and Heydar Aliyev, the “founding fathers” of post-Soviet Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan respectively, were educated during the Soviet period and were influenced by the Marxist-Leninist view of religion. Moscow viewed Islam as a violent and primitive religion, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan reinforced such stereotypes. Additionally, the Uzbek and Azeri parliaments adopted secular-oriented constitutions to emphasize their pro-Western credentials. Furthermore, constitutional secularism was viewed in the 1990s as a safeguard of inter-ethnic harmony in the two newly established republics, which were still populated by a large number of non-Muslim citizens (e.g., Russians, Jews).

In addition, the two countries have continued the Soviet practice of institutionalizing Islam in order to prevent the rise of Islamist opposition movements. In 1992, the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan (MBU) assumed the same functions that the Soviet-era spiritual board had performed. Sheikh Mukhammad Sodyk Yusuf, a charismatic and outspoken mufti, initially led the MBU through the transitional period. His independence raised Karimov’s suspicions and Yusuf was forced to self-exile. His successor, Muhtordjon Abdullah Bukhariy, who died in 2002, had a reputation of being a regime supporter. The current mufti, Abdurashid qori Bahromov, is also largely considered more of a public servant than a religious leader. The MBU has been placed under the responsibility of the state-controlled Committee on Religious Affairs, which is under the Cabinet of Ministers. All mosques are monitored by the MBU, which has functioned as the long arm of the Uzbek regime within the Muslim community.

In 1992, the Soviet-established Spiritual Board of Transcaucasian Muslims, under the leadership of Sheikh ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Hummat Pashazade, was renamed as the Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB). Pashazade has had only limited influence over religious life, mainly because of his Soviet background. In 2001, Azeri authorities established the State Committee on Religious Affairs in order to monitor Islamic activities. Rafig Aliyev became the first head of the State Committee, but he soon entered into a public rivalry with Pashazade and was sacked by President Aliyev in 2006. According to Azeri law, religious groups must register with the State Committee, which also has the power to suspend their activities. Registered Muslim organizations must submit to the CMB, which appoints imams and monitors sermons.

Although the two countries initially went down similar paths, there are important differences in the way they reacted to Islamist challenges. Azeri authorities first welcomed the revival of the Muslim faith, because they viewed it as an indispensable part of their national culture, fostering patriotism. But as the Muslim missionaries attempted through charity work to increase their political influence in the country, the Aliyev regime suspended the activities of most of them in the late 1990s (Cornell, 2006, p. 43). Foreign preachers had ignored the religious peculiarity of Azerbaijan that has uniquely shaped domestic politics and national attitudes. The tolerant version of Shiism practiced in Azerbaijan contains the concept of Taqiyya, referring to a dispensation allowing Shias to conceal their faith when under threat or prosecution. In effect, Azeri Shias have practiced what Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called a reconciliatory Taqiyya towards their Sunni compatriots (E. Mustafaoglu, Director of ‘Near East’ Research Center, Baku, Azerbaijan, personal communication, April 2009).

More importantly, Heydar Aliev fostered successfully the growth of a personality cult, emphasizing his strong leadership and lengthy experience. His heir, Ilham Aliev, has capitalized on his father’s legacy, encouraging the development of a new state ideology, Heydarism (Muradova, 2008). In reality, it is the Azeri equivalent of Turkish Ataturkism, namely an ideology of secular nationalism with strong emphasis on charismatic leadership. Nowadays, it is common to see portraits of Haydar Aliev and his son in streets, schools, and universities.

The Aliyev regime has avoided the inclusion of Islam in the state ideology for two reasons. First, such a policy could seriously undermine the prospects for resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with the Christian Armenians. Armenian propaganda has skilfully framed the conflict in religious terms (Tchilingirian, 1998) in order to attract support from Western countries and Russia. Therefore, Baku has been eager to stress the secular character of the Azeri state, which can accommodate both the Muslim majority and the Armenian Christian minority. Secondly, Azeri authorities, like their predecessors during the First Azerbaijan Republic, have promoted a secular, inclusive identity in order to heal the old Shia-Sunni division which could potentially destabilize the country.

In contrast, the Karimov regime has attempted to integrate Islam into the state ideology. President Karimov held the Quran in one hand and the country’s constitution in the other on the day of his inauguration as first president of independent Uzbekistan in 1991. In 1992, the Uzbek leader wrote that “Islam is the religion of our forefathers, the substance and essence of the Muslims’ daily existence” (Karimov, 1992, pp. 18-19). Moreover, the president performed the pilgrimage to Mecca and his government takes pride in subsidizing citizens’ participation in the annual hajj. The Uzbek authorities have also celebrated great Muslim thinkers like al-Bukhari and Bahauddin Naqhshaband. The Karimov regime has apparently been more confident in “nationalizing” Islam since it rules over a largely monoethnic Sunni population. Not surprisingly, Uzbek intellectuals have followed suit, emphasizing the Islamic roots of the Uzbek identity. For instance, Professor Zakhid Islamov of Tashkent Islamic University has argued that the concept of Muslimness is a very important constituent of Uzbekiness (Z. Islamov, Head of the Religious Studies Department, Tashkent Islamic University, personal communication, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, August 2005).

Simultaneously, both governments have embarked upon a policy of eliminating Islamist groups in order to eradicate their ability to launch Islamic-inspired political initiatives (Akbarzadeh, 2003, p. 92; Wilhelmsen, 2009, p. 728). But Tashkent has indiscriminately arrested devout Muslims who are suspected of having connections with Islamist groups (Human Rights Watch, 2004), whereas Baku has mainly targeted militant Islamists. In addition, Uzbek authorities have been particularly vicious in their treatment of jailed Islamists, whereas the Azeris have been rather careful in this matter. Yet, both Aliyev and Karimov have been eager to capitalize on the US-led war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, by stressing the potential threat from Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in their respective countries (Akbarzadeh, 2005; Valiyev, 2006).

Understanding the Differences between Uzbek and Azeri Political Islam

Historical factors can explain why political Islam is stronger and more confrontational in Uzbekistan than Azerbaijan. Uzbek politics in the pro-Soviet period was defined exclusively by religion. Uzbekistan, the cradle of the Islamic civilization in central Asia, was alien to democracy and secularism. Islam was the official religion of pre-Soviet Uzbek states (i.e., the Emirate of Bukhara, and the Khanates of Khiva and Kokand), which resembled the feudal states in Europe. The post of Khan combined religious authority with secular rule. The ulema class controlled important government positions and had an exclusive monopoly on education and jurisprudence (Polonskaya & Malashenko, 1994, p. 29). Due to the geographical distance and lack of natural resources, Uzbekistan remained isolated from the West and its technological advances. Since very few Westerners had set foot in the country before the era of the Russian colonization in the second half of the nineteenth century, Uzbek society stayed aloof from Western secularism. Tsarist rule treated central Asia like a colony and did not undermine the ulema’s authority. Only the ideology-driven communists attempted, rather superficially, to eradicate Islam from the life of central Asians. Yet, the ulema-led Basmachi insurgency illustrated Islam’s resilience and capacity to unite its followers.

Azerbaijan experienced an oil boom from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century that dramatically transformed the economy and society. With the help of Western oil investment, Azerbaijan was transformed into an industrialized society. As a result, a newly established class of local oil magnates, together with liberal segments of Baku society (e.g., intellectuals, merchants), adopted Western-type education and lifestyle (Alieva, 2009: pp. 28-9). While grasping the benefits of modernization, these Azeris downplayed the role of religion in public life. Even the pan-Islamic Jadid movement had only limited influence in Azerbaijan due to its secularist heritage. In the late nineteenth century, Baku became a gateway for Western culture into the East.

Moreover, Azerbaijan, with its strong indigenous secular tradition, was home to the first parliamentary republic in the Muslim world. Nor was there an equivalent to Uzbekistan’s Basmachi rebellion in Azerbaijan. During the short-lived Azerbaijani Republic, the political elite initiated reforms to de-emphasize religious differences. Indeed, the Soviet authorities attempted to build upon the long Azeri tradition of secularism to suppress Islam.

Although both Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan shared the painful experience of Soviet occupation, Muslims in the two countries reacted differently. Uzbekistan experienced a politicized revival of Islam that challenged Soviet rule. The home-grown Salafist movement gained followers in the conservative Ferghana valley in the 1970s by questioning secularism. In Azerbaijan, there was never an equivalent revival of Islam during the Soviet period, although many Azeris remained attached to Islam. In other words, Uzbeks have a long tradition of mobilizing around Islam, but Azeris do not.

Moreover, there are differences in the ways the two Soviet republics responded to external political developments. For the Muslim world, 1979 was a year of cataclysmic events: the Shah was overthrown by an Islamist-dominated coalition in Iran and the Red Army invaded Afghanistan. Both Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan were located at the frontline of the USSR’s geopolitical space and bordered countries with strong Islamist movements which sought to export their revolutionary messages; yet, the two Soviet republics were not affected equally.

The Afghan jihad against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan served as an example for Uzbek Islamists. In the 1980s, thousands of Soviet Muslims were drafted into the Red Army to fight the Afghan mujahedin. In this way, Soviet Uzbeks became acquainted with the religious devotion of the local population. These veterans were later recruited by Islamist groups in Uzbekistan, because they possessed valuable organizational and fighting skills.

In the case of Azerbaijan, the Iranian revolution was almost ignored by the society. The Khomeinist vision of a theocratic state where power rests with the ulema appeared to many Azeris as anachronistic and out of touch with reality. Moreover, Azeri Shiism has developed an indigenous tradition of tolerance that discourages the use of violence for political purposes despite historical confrontation between Sunnis and Shias in the country. Despite the geographical proximity and religious affiliation, Soviet Azerbaijan remained aloof from the gospel of Khomeini.

Following the collapse of communism, there is an ideological vacuum in Uzbekistan that is not easily measurable but clearly exists. The Karimov regime has been unable to fill the vacuum with its own brand of nationalism; indeed, nation statehood has relatively shallow roots in Uzbekistan since the Uzbek national identity is largely the product of Soviet ethnic engineering. The post-Soviet ideological vacuum has instead been partly filled by political Islam, because its discourse about the establishment of a just society sounds familiar to many Uzbeks after decades of intense Soviet propaganda. In addition, the rise of political Islam has coincided with the rapid growth of religiosity within Uzbek society. In the post-communist period, many Uzbeks have been involved in a renewed quest for Islamic knowledge, which partly shows itself in an interest in political Islam. Notwithstanding the foreign connections, therefore, political Islam in Uzbekistan is indigenous-driven.

On the contrary, Azerbaijan has not suffered from a post-Soviet ideological vacuum since Azeri nationalism, which has its roots in the late nineteenth century, preceded the Soviet takeover. Political Islam, as interpreted by either Shia or Sunni groups, competes with deep-rooted secular nationalist ideological visions. While Islam has certainly been an important part of the Azeri identity, the politicization of the faith, espoused by Islamists, has alienated many Azeris who are proud of their country’s tradition of tolerance (N. Gasimoglu, personal communication, Baku, Azerbaijan, April 2009). Therefore, political Islam in Azerbaijan is largely an imported phenomenon, with origins in neighboring countries.


Islamists in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan have different ideological perspectives and political methodologies due to historical and cultural specificities. With the exception of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamist movement in Uzbekistan has been dominated by jihadist groups. In Azerbaijan, the Islamist movement has been fragmented along the Sunni-Shia divide and has remained largely peaceful. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that the two countries have adopted different approaches to Islam: Heyder Aliyev attempted in Azerbaijan, rather successfully, to build a secular state while acknowledging that Islam is the majority faith. Karimov in Uzbekistan confronted Islamists almost as soon as he came to power, and espoused a nationalized form of Islam to cement his grip on power. More importantly, dissimilar national experiences with political Islam mean in practice that Uzbek officials are much more worried about international terrorism than their Azeri counterparts, who have never faced a Taliban-linked Islamist insurgency. In fact, the Azeri authorities are more concerned about intra-Muslim rivalries and their potential exploitation by foreign governments. The emergence of different political Islams could have significant implications for Western policy in the Caucasus and central Asia. Having diverse agendas and methodologies, Azeri and Uzbek Islamists cannot be treated as a monolithic entity. For instance, some Islamists are violent (IMU) and some are not (IPA). There are Islamists who favor a greater public role for Islam but not the establishment of an Islamic republic (Ibrahimoglu), while others envision the restoration of the Caliphate (Hizb ut-Tahrir). Put simply, each group requires a different approach: jihadis can be dealt with by military means, but peaceful groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and IPA are needed to channel the growing anger felt by Muslim communities into non-violent activism.