Praying Under Restrictions: Islam, Identity, and Social Change in Azerbaijan

Vahram Ter-Matevosyan & Nelli Minasyan. Europe-Asia Studies. Volume 69, Issue 5, July 2017.

Since 2009 Azerbaijan has adopted a set of laws and policy regulations designed to limit religious freedom and restrain Islamic activism throughout the country. In spite of stricter state control, characterised by the introduction of legal restrictions, and the frequent recourse to police raids and imprisonments, Azerbaijani society has since experienced a visible increase in its degree of religiosity while social mobilisation around religious organisations and parties has significantly expanded. It is precisely to the emergence of Islamic activism in Azerbaijan between 2009 and 2013 that this article devotes its core attention. This study aims to explain how Azerbaijan’s Islamic revival enhanced the mobilisation potential of local society, arguing that, ultimately, social mobilisation conducted under the banner of Islam was directly affected by increasing levels of religiosity within Azerbaijani society. Further, the article intends to shed light on how the government’s repression of Islam has affected this dynamic.

This study identified 2009 as its departure year as it represented the beginning of a repressive drive whereby the government of Azerbaijan came to suppress Islam with renewed force and determination. On 8 May 2009, the Milli Məclis (Parliament) passed an amended Law on Freedom of Religion, signed by the President on 29 May 2009, resulting in additional restrictions on the registration of religious groups. Additionally, it implemented constitutional amendments concerning the suppression of religion, such as the law on religious freedom. The study departs theoretically from the assumption that increasing levels of religiosity within Azerbaijani society, and corresponding increases in the degree of mobilisation around local mosques, religious organisations, and parties, are ultimately integral to a wider process of social mobilisation. The analysis presented here thus uses concepts from social movement theories to explain Islamic activism.

This article relies on the definition of social movements provided by Amenta and colleagues, who presented social movements as ‘collectives acting with some degree of organisation and continuity outside of institutional or organisational channels for the purpose of challenging or defending extant authority’ (Amenta et al., p. 11). Our understanding of Islamic activism, in turn, is based on the definition provided by Wiktorowicz, according to whom ‘Islamic activism is the mobilization of contention to support Muslim causes’ (Wiktorowicz, p. 3).

This study presents the results of content analysis of Azerbaijani state documents, international reports, and media resources published between 2009 and 2013. The Caucasus Barometer dataset, a nationwide representative survey conducted yearly in Azerbaijan, is used to analyse in greater depth the relationship between the degree of religiosity characterising Azerbaijani society and the latter’s tendency to mobilise socially.

Islam in the Social Discourse of Post-Soviet Azerbaijan

In Azerbaijan, ‘Islam … is partly social/identity-glue, historically and culturally; it is also a fundamental aspect of patriarchal traditionalism and conservatism. Islam also provides possibilities for allegiances to other countries’ and groups’ interests’ (Kotecha, p. 3). Approximately 96-98% of Azerbaijan’s population is Muslim. What does being a ‘Muslim’ in Azerbaijan mean? Is Islam a part of national identity, purely a religious belief, or both? Islam in Azerbaijan is a multi-layered phenomenon. Here, the term ‘Muslim’ is applied to believers belonging to different branches of Islam, which is manifested locally in varying degrees of belief. According to various estimates, 65-75% of Azerbaijan’s Muslim population is Shia, whereas almost 25-35% are Sunnis, which makes Azerbaijan the second largest Shia country in the world. In addition, there remains a divide between Sunni-Salafism, often called Wahhabism, and Sunni-Sufism, two different interpretations of Sunni Islam that have been the cause of various conflicts throughout the world. Such cleavages have historical roots, as they roughly correspond to the territorial divisions of the past, when Azerbaijan’s territory was ruled by different powers, particularly the (Shiite) Persian Empire and the (Sunni) Ottoman Empire (Motika; Swietochowski; Balci; Kotecha).

For a long time, Azerbaijan has occupied the most secular end of the umma—the global Muslim community. The reasons underlying this reality primarily revolve around the 70 years spent under the control of the Soviet atheist regime. Despite Soviet domination, however, Islam never vanished from the lives and consciousness of Azerbaijanis (Swietochowski; Balci). Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent independence in 1991, Azerbaijani Islam experienced an early awakening, characterised by the inter-related growth of the population’s religiosity and the organisational expansion of local religious structures (Motika; Kotecha; Cornell). As Motika noted, ‘the phenomenon of a religious renaissance taking place in parallel with a “national rebirth” or “birth” is a fact which cannot be ignored’ (Motika, p. 11). With the achievement of independence, however, the state did not manage to keep religion under its control. Neighbouring Muslim countries (Iran and Turkey) as well as other major Islamic powers (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait), took advantage of the revival of local Islam (Motika; Swietochowski), attempting to draw the Azerbaijani state within their respective spheres of influence through the promotion of specific branches and strains of Islam (Tohidi; Cornell; Sattarov).

Along with the institutional and social reforms taking place in the country, various branches and streams of Islam began to penetrate Azerbaijan. Internal forces, at the same time, took advantage of the opportunities created by difficult socio-economic/political circumstances to employ Islam for socio-political purposes. As Azerbaijanis began ‘rediscovering’ religion in their ideational self, the processes of Islamic revival and the emergence of Islamic activism gathered increasing momentum (Motika; de Cordier).

The war, economic hardships, and social deprivations that the Azerbaijani society experienced after the collapse of the Soviet Union, pushed some of the most disenfranchised segments of the population into embracing a more religious, and, in some cases, extreme outlook (Kotecha; Geybullayeva). As Islam in Azerbaijan expressed its discontent against corruption, social injustice, authoritarian practices, and local dynamics of Islamic revival conform to the patterns identified by Gunaratna, Pape, and Fozi. In this way, as argued by Wilhelmsen and Collins, Islam’s influence moved from a societal level to a more political one. Through this process, religion came to be a means through which society turned for solutions to its fundamental problems and, in some cases, launched a struggle against the government’s increasing authoritarianism.

In the early post-Soviet era, numerous foreign missionaries travelled to Azerbaijan to educate the local youth (Goltz; Goksel). The most influential missionaries were part of the Nurcular movement, which originated in Turkey and is perhaps more widely known as the Gülen movement, from the name of its leader (Fethullah Gülen). This movement differed from other strains of Islam, as it endeavoured to spread its ideology through secular institutions, media, and companies. In Azerbaijan, the Gülen movement has enjoyed great popularity across diverse population strata, and particularly amongst urban elites (Yavuz; Goksel; Aliyev).

Iran’s impact on Azerbaijan’s religious landscape, on the other hand, features greater historical depth. Iran has been considered the primary supporter of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (Roi; Motika): its local involvement was initially challenged through the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (Rubin) and Sahar, the Iranian radio-television channel. The latter has broadcast its programmes in Azerbaijani language with regularity and frequently covered political developments internal to Azerbaijan, especially during times of political turmoil or instability. Sahar has traditionally enjoyed notable levels of popularity in Azerbaijan’s southern regions (Sattarov). The Islamic Republic has furthermore supported opportunities for Azerbaijani youth to study in Iran (Rajaee; Motika).

In order to curtail the increase of foreign influence on Azerbaijani Islam and regulate the activities of various religious organisations between 1992 and 2011, the Law on Freedom of Religious Belief was amended 14 times, imposing each time even tighter restrictions than those included in previous amendments. In order to oversee the registration and activities of religious groups, the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations (Azərbaycan Respublikası Dini Qurumlarla İş üzrə Dövlət Komitəsi—SCWRO) was created in 2001 under the jurisdiction of the government’s executive branch (Sattarov; Valiyev; Al-Falah; Sarkissian). Heydar Aliyev managed in this sense to distance Islam from the political life of Azerbaijan while establishing a balance between the different streams of Islam active in the country. From the achievement of independence until the end of the twentieth century, Islam in Azerbaijan experienced three stages of development: revival, (re-)organisation, and placement under state control (Sattarov; Grim & Karim).

In the early twenty-first century, Azerbaijan witnessed a substantive growth of its Salafi movement. The expansion of this branch of Islam was particularly visible in both Baku and the northern regions, namely those that neighbour Dagestan and, more generally, the North Caucasus, where Salafi groups are traditionally strong (Cornell). Post-2000 Azerbaijani salafiyya mainly manifested itself at the societal level, exerting a particularly strong influence across the young, poor, and uneducated segments of the population (Valiyev). The eruption of clashes between Salafis, Shias, and Sunnis in northern Azerbaijan, and the rise of conversions from Shiism to Salafism, captured the growth of the influence that salafiyya is exerting on the domestic religious landscape (Valiyev; Heyat). The Abu Bakr mosque, run by Salafi groups in Baku, came to attract as many as 5,000 Muslims for Friday prayers (Sultanova & Rajabov; Cornell). Goyushov argued that as Azerbaijani Islam became more visible, its divisions—and their foreign sponsorship—came to the fore more markedly: Turkey influenced Sunnis, Iran influenced the local Shia community, while the Gulf states continued to support the Salafi expansion (Goyushov; Cornell).

Making use of transformation processes in the country, the Islamisation of Azerbaijan was carried out through networks, official organisations, political parties, relief committees, media and secular companies, education programmes, and religious literature (Rajaee; Motika; Yavuz; Goksel; Aliyev). Initially, the government of Azerbaijan managed to keep religious structures and organisation out of politics, making Islam into a tool to consolidate the population’s national identity on the one hand and the state’s stance in the global umma on the other (Motika; Sattarov; Valiyev; Al-Falah; Bedford; Balci & Goyushev).

Government-imposed restrictions, however, could only temporarily mitigate the expansion of Islamic movements. Azerbaijan’s Islamic activism may be said to have developed, during the post-Soviet years, through fluctuating periods of stagnation and resurgence, leading Goyushov and Kotecha to argue that the Islamisation of Azerbaijan is yet to be completed. The strengthening of local salafiyya has recently attracted the attention of the global scholarly community, which came to argue that government crackdowns have the potential to boost radicalisation while stimulating the formulation of terrorist agendas within Azerbaijan’s Salafi groups (Valiyev; Heyat; Bedford; Sultanova & Rajabov; Cornell; Souleimanov & Ehrmann).

Thus, scholars of the social facets of Azerbaijan’s Islamic activism seem to have largely agreed that the reasons behind the upsurge in Islam are predominantly related to a series of interlinked factors, including the proliferation of traditional and state-created structures of Islam, the difficult socio-economic conditions of the Azerbaijani society, the hardening of local politics, and the rise in the influence of external religious and political forces (Motika; Valiyev; Geybullayeva; Goyushov; Heyat; Bedford; Souleimanov & Ehrmann; de Cordier).

While Azerbaijan’s Islamic activism does not have to be regarded as a mass movement, the mere existence of prominent Islamic forces, and the Juma and Abu Bakr communities in particular, is an indicator of increasing social mobilisation conducted under the banner of Islam (Heyat; Bedford; de Cordier). These communities, which played an influential role in activating Azerbaijan’s Muslims, used a diverse range of strategies to challenge the state. Those strategies required the employment of significant resources, including the social networks of the community leaders, and the transformation of mosques in sites of mobilisation. Additional opportunities for social mobilisation came from the failure of reforms, high-level corruption, and the re-emergence of Islamic movements across the globe (Heyat; Bedford; de Cordier).

Through these organisational resources, the communities in question constructed an alternative to the artificial form of state-created Islam, while representing a different means to combat the corrupt practices of authoritarian governance enforced by the regime in Baku. Scholars posited that both Juma and Abu Bakr used frames to attract followers and pursue their movement, although the frames were not always uniform. The Juma community focused on the protection of religious and human rights while championing the population’s struggle against corruption (de Cordier), while the Abu Bakr movement tended to emphasise the importance of Islamic values and morality (Valiyev). Bruno de Cordier argued that the Juma mosque initially attracted a significant amount of government repression as it endeavoured to mobilise believers in the wider civil society with a view to promote change, from an Islamic perspective, on issues of universal importance. In the case of Abu Bakr, the target was a narrower one, as the community intended to promote change within Islam, focusing on issues with almost exclusive religious pertinence (Cornell). The government did, however, realise that the change promoted by the Abu Bakr movement through morality and fundamental values posed a threat to regime stability (Wilhelmsen).

By highlighting the social component of Azerbaijan’s Islamic activism, de Cordier and Bedford remarked that, in Azerbaijan, the relationship between Islam and the state remained confrontational without turning violent, notwithstanding the growing amount of government repression. Bedford argued that the mobilisation frames selected by the communities have determined their reaction to state repression as well as their success. This is the logic by which one can explain why, as a result of state repression, the Juma community became ‘overt’ while the Abu Bakr community became, in turn, ‘covert’.

The scholarly literature on Islam in Azerbaijan seems to have reached some consensus on the threats that local Islamic communities have generally posed to state authorities, notwithstanding the responses that the former adopted in reaction to state repression. Islam has become a means to develop solutions to the society’s wider problems. The mobilising force of Islam is strengthening, with the mutation of Islamic activism into violence in Azerbaijan remaining a possible option (Motika; Collins; Bedford; Wilhelmsen; Souleimanov & Ehrmann; de Cordier). Geybullayeva adds to the debate by arguing that Islamic groups view both official religious structures and other Islamic branches as obstacles to their agendas.

The socio-political mobilisation of Azerbaijan’s Muslim communities and individuals, in this sense, represents an on-going process. Most studies of local Islamic activism have focused on Baku and its surrounding areas, conducting case studies of renowned communities centred in the capital (Valiyev; Cornell; Bedford; Sattarov; de Cordier). This article will conversely build on prior work by looking at nationwide behaviours, hence defining how Azerbaijani society understood its involvement in Islamic activism across the wider territory. It will shed light on the intensification of government repression of Islam since 2009, the impact it had on Azerbaijani society’s religiosity, while examining trends in mobilisation around contentious Islamic causes.

2009-2013: Expanding Restrictions on Islam

Government repression of emerging Islamic movements influenced the trajectory of mobilisation processes (Hafez; Hafez & Wiktorowicz; Lawson). Hafez and Wiktorowicz  argues that the onset of repression establishes a generally unjust milieu in which movement members tend to legitimise antagonist actions against authoritarian and corrupt regimes. Repressive responses to Islamic movements featured different intensities, shaping in turn the members’ reactions to the implementation of such measures. Hafez and Wiktorowicz argued that the responses chosen by the movement are generally proportional to the specific type of repression: whether it is indiscriminate and reactive, or selective and pre-emptive. When repression is reactive and indiscriminate, it tends to target indiscriminately activists in the movement, which, in this case, begins to radicalise. Conversely, selective and pre-emptive repressions limit the movement in its endeavours to promote mass mobilisation, selectively eliminating the movement’s leaders and important figures. If regime repression is of a harsher character, the movement’s leadership is likely to limit their use of moderate tactics while unintentionally radicalising and recurring to violence (Hafez; Lawson). Since 2009 the Azerbaijani government, concerned with growing religiosity in the country, re-launched its anti-religious campaign with renewed force. The campaign has been carried out through legal restrictions and administrative appropriations.

Religious restrictions introduced in 2009 were predominantly focused on amending Azerbaijan’s legal framework. Two constitutional amendments endeavoured to limit religious propaganda and movements (Article 18, II), and furthermore restricted the rights of religious officials to take part in presidential and parliamentary elections (Article 56, II). Azerbaijan’s law on political parties also forbids the establishment of parties with a religious agenda while prohibiting religious officials from becoming party members (Sattarov).

Another key document regulating religion in Azerbaijan, namely the 1992 law on freedom of religion, was subjected to further amendments in 2009. The original draft mandated that every Muslim religious community operating in Azerbaijan would be subordinated to the Caucasus Muslim Board (Qafqaz Müsəlmanları İdarəsi—CMB). Additional post-2009 amendments restricted the registration procedure for religious groups (European Commission) and bestowed additional powers to the CMB, to which every registered organisation was now required to report. The amendments also stipulated that religious groups seeking registration were required to present at least 50 supporting members, a substantial increase from pre-amendment quotas. During 2009, Azerbaijan’s Criminal Code (Azərbaycan Respublikasının Cinayət Məcəlləsi) and the Administrative Code of Violation (İnzibati Xətalar Məcəlləsi) were further amended, entitling the SCWRO to criminalise the illegal production, distribution, and importation of religious literature. Punishments for related offences included fines ranging from US$6,329 to US$8,860 or up to two years’ imprisonment for first offenders, with repeated failures to observe this law attracting fines from US$8,860 to US$11,392 or imprisonment for between two and five years.

In 2013, the President of Azerbaijan approved further amendments to the law on freedom of religion, regulating the use, production, and distribution of religious books, audio, and video materials that received a pre-approval stamp from relevant authorities. The sale of these materials was also limited to specialised sale points, established with the permission of executive authorities. The amendments to Azerbaijan’s law on freedom of religion increased the power of key religious organisations of Azerbaijan, with the CMB and the State Committee for the Work with Religious Organisations exerting greater control and suppression of religious activities across the country. Almost all of the introduced changes were aimed at restricting Islam in Azerbaijan. Through legal and administrative means, the government endeavoured to suppress religious organisations and hinder their activities. It failed, however, to block religion from growing and intruding onto the Azerbaijani political landscape.

When responding to post-2009 restrictions, numerous religious organisations and mosques across Azerbaijan failed to comply with newly enacted legislation, thus operating illegally. The authorities in Baku had, in this sense, enough ground to claim that Azerbaijani Islam had not ceased to represent a potential threat for the society as a whole, resorting to increasingly repressive measures—including the arrests of prominent religious leaders and activists, the confiscation of religious literature, and the closure of mosques—to regulate the local religious landscape.

In 2009-2010, further restrictions were imposed on public manifestations of Islam, including the believers’ decisions to grow long beards or wear headscarves, and the mosques’ right to perform the azan (call for prayer) (Bedford). Azerbaijani authorities ordered the removal of all religious symbols from state buildings, spiritual songs were banned from internet websites, television programmes, and mobile ringtones, with the police proceeding to confiscate religious literature that, allegedly, fostered a radical agenda. From 2009 to 2013, no fewer than 14 mosques were closed throughout Azerbaijan; construction works on the Fatima Zahra mosque in Baku were forcibly interrupted in 2009 (USCIRF; Muradova; Corley; see Table 1).

TABLE 1 Closed Mosques in Azerbaijan 2009-2013


Region Religious group Year
Shahidlar Sumgait Salafi 2009
Mosque on oil rocks Baku Salafi 2009
Prophet Muhammad mosque Baku Sunni 2009
Mushfigabad Garadagh Sunni 2010
Mehdiabad Mehdiabad Salafi 2010
Juma (Shah Abbas) Ganja Shia 2010
Albanian Ganja Salafi 2010
Martyr’s mosque Baku Sunni 2010
Juma Nakhijevan Sunni 2010
Gumbash Lenkoran Shia 2010
Shamakhi Mosque Shamakhi Shia 2010
Ahli-mosque Ganja Sunni 2010
Shahsavar Mosque Shahsevar Shia-Sunni 2010
Ismaili Mosque Ismaili Shia N/A

Sources: USCIRF; ‘Sud v Baku vynes reshenie o snose mecheti “Fatmei Zakhra”‘, Kavkazskii uzel, 1 September 2009, available at: http://www.Kavkazskii, accessed 24 October 2016; ‘Azeris Speak Out on Mosque Closures’, BBC News, 3 November 2009, available at:, accessed 24 October 2016; Muradova (20090; Corley.

Azerbaijani Muslims, particularly those associated with Salafi groups, were frequently subjected to indefinite detention, often without trial. After 2009, this repressive practice was regularly implemented in Ganja, Baku, Sumgait Zaqatala, Khachmaz, Qakh, Lenkoran, Sheki and Geychay (Sultanova; Souleimanov & Ehrmann); a total of more than 200 arrests were reported between 2009 and 2011. Restrictive measures, and often extra-judicial arrests, were also imposed on prominent Muslim scholars from the Nizami district and the cities of Sumgait, Nakihijevan and Lenkoran. Police in Zaqatala, moreover, forcibly shaved the long beards of local Salafis, who were also regularly abused and subjected to beatings (Sultanova). The government even imposed restrictions on public marches and traditional ceremonies during the Ashura day of the sacred month of muharram. Students in the Jalilabad region were banned from attending local mosques, and university rectors threatened to expel those students who, defying government bans, had opted to participate in muharram ceremonies (see Table 2).

TABLE 2 Arrested Islamists 2009-2013

Religious groups

Regions Year Number
Salafis Lenkoran 2009-2010 100
Salafis Nisami 2011 10
Nursis Sumgait 2011 80
Shia Nakhijevan 2011 10
Salafis Zakatali, Kachmaz, Quba, Imaili, Qakh, Geokchay 2009-2011 N/A
Muslims Baku, Sumgait, Ganja, Zakatali, Sheki, Quba 2012 40
Muslims Baku 2010-2012 N/A
Muslims Ganja 2011 14

Sources: ‘Azerbaijan: International Religious Freedom’, US Department of State, 2010, available at:, accessed 24 October 2016; ‘Azerbaijan: International Religious Freedom’, US Department of State, 2011, available at:, accessed 24 October 2016; Sultanova; ‘Azerbaijan: International Religious Freedom’, US Department of State, 2012, available at:, accessed 24 October 2016; ‘2013 Prison Census: 211 Journalists Jailed Worldwide: Azerbaijan’, Committee to Protect Journalists, 1 December 2013, available at:, accessed 24 October 2016; Souleimanov and Ehrmann.

Circumstances, timing, and location of Azerbaijan’s official repression of Islam point to a concerted government strategy aimed at liquidating popular religious leaders who used Islam to achieve political aims. Almost invariably, these leaders were initially arrested on purely administrative grounds, which then led to serious charges after police discovered illegal weapons, unsanctioned literature, and drugs while searching their apartments. As this scenario repeated with systematic regularity across Azerbaijan, several international observers began to question the genuine aims of the government’s religious policy, going as far as referring to 2011 as ‘a period of state repression towards believers in Azerbaijan’ (Human Rights Watch; see Table 3).

TABLE 3 Imprisoned Religious Leaders 2009-2013


Position On charges Year
Movsun Samedov IPA Head Illegal weapon possession/ coup attempts/terrorism 2011
Vagif Abdulayev IPA Deputy head Illegal weapon possession/coup attempts/terrorism 2011
Feramiz Abbasov Head of Massali region Illegal weapon possession 2011
Tale Bagirov Imam of Nardaran Illegal drug possession 2011
Haji Ilham Imam of Bina district mosque 2012
Azer Jabiev Theologian in Ganja Hooliganism 2010-2011
Fakhri Izlyasev Theologian in Ganja Hooliganism 2010-2011
Seid Faramiz Akhund Hooliganism 2010-2011
Abgyul Suleymanov Theologian/head of Jafari Heyat religious community Illegal weapon possession, drug possession/Treason of country 2012
Unanimous Theologian in Turan Running underground school of Said Nursi 2013

Sources: ‘Islamskaya partiya Azerbaidzhana trebuet osvobozhdeniya svoikh arestovannykh aktivistov’, Kavkazskii uzel, 11 January 2011, available at:, accessed 24 October 2016; ‘Azerbaijan: An Updated List of Political Prisoners’, Civic Solidarity, 1 October 2013, available at:, accessed 24 October 2016; USCIRF.

In 2012, the CMB expressed for the first time its concerns about the spread of non-traditional religious groups. The CMB statement confirmed the authorities’ anxiety towards rising religiosity within Azerbaijani society. The wave of persecutions and harassment continued: throughout 2012 and 2013, over 70 theologians, religious figures, journalists, and heads of religious organisations and communities were arrested. In 2012, the State Committee for the Work with Religious Organisations won a legal case to demolish the only registered Muslim community in Hirdalan, near Baku. As a consequence, the town’s 40,000 residents were left with no legal place of worship.

Meanwhile, the international reaction intensified. In 2013, Azerbaijan was included for the first time in the countries of concern list prepared by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The Azerbaijani government combined reactive and indiscriminate repression with a selective and pre-emptive strategy of restriction, instigating in turn an antagonist, and often violent, relationship between local security forces and the wider society. This environment of unjust repression and harassment led to a drastic change in the attitude of Azerbaijani Muslims towards violence. The manipulation of the law to exclude religious people from politics and the marginalisation of social forces from Azerbaijan’s decision-making processes provided credibility for those in the movement who argued for violence, as state actions had limited the number of reasonable tactical options available.

The government of Azerbaijan failed nevertheless to anticipate the counter effects of its crackdown on religion, perhaps overlooking the impact that centralised repression may have had on local dynamics of Islamic radicalisation. In spite of state policies, a set of religious organisations and communities, particularly those that enjoyed foreign backing, continued to operate across Azerbaijan. Amongst these, a particularly prominent role was played by the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (Azərbaycan İslam Partiyası—IPA), which, from 2009 to the time of writing, has represented the country’s sole remaining religious party.

Implications of Restrictions: The Case of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan

The IPA, known for its Shiite nature and strong affiliation with Iran, has been actively engaged in the politicisation of Azerbaijani Islam. Since independence, the party attempted to juxtapose its ideology with that sponsored by the government, using Islam as an anchor to mobilise people, thus filling the gap left by state religious organisations in pursuit of its political agenda (Sattarov; Cornell; Yunusov).

During the post-2009 repression, the Islamic Party acquired renewed force. Taking advantage of growing discontent vis-à-vis the limitations imposed on religious rights in Azerbaijan, the IPA became more vocal and engaged with greater regularity in the organisation of anti-state demonstrations. The most prominent of these protests was held against the imposition of a ban on hijab in schools and universities that was introduced by the Ministry of Education in November 2010 (Abbasov; Ravich). In an unprecedented move, the IPA joined other opposition parties against the ban: this coalition emerged as a potential political challenge to the authorities in Baku (Sultanova). In this context, the IPA took advantage of a state created opportunity for protest, drawing on societal frustrations with the failure of modernisation processes, economic destitution, political exclusion, and disillusionment. Here, the IPA used the government crackdown on a symbol of Islam (the hijab) as a frame to motivate and inspire the masses against repressive state authorities. Meanwhile, as argued by proponents of social movement theory, it engaged its allies, namely other forces (political parties not affiliated with Islam) that had their own interests against state authorities.

The Azerbaijani regime did not wait too long before reacting to the anti-ban protest and the emergence of an IPA-led coalition. In 2010, Movsum Samedov, the Iran-educated IPA Chairman, was arrested. Ten days later, when Samedov was freed, hundreds of people gathered in front of the Baku prison to celebrate his release. The police raided the demonstration and proceeded to arrest at least 70 people (Djavadov). In January 2011, Samedov publicly criticised the Azerbaijani regime for its corruption and human rights violations, stating: ‘we are against those who are against our religion. We have to destroy such a cruel regime and its head’. Samedov hence called on the people to rise up against the authorities and obliterate Azerbaijan’s despotic regime. By raising a call to arms under the banner of Islam, the IPA head created an anti-system frame, in which it accused the regime of corruption and human rights violations. This move escalated the IPA’s anti-government rhetoric, leading the party to focus its antagonistic agenda on purely religious grounds, hence abandoning its typically universalistic tones.

Only a few days later, news outlets reported the arrest of Samedov and six other IPA members, who were then sentenced to long years of imprisonment on charges of illegal weapons possession and terrorism. After Samedov’s first arrest, it was apparent that the party enjoyed the support of the population as long as Samedov was free to operate. In this sense, the Azerbaijani society saw the IPA’s strength in the image of its leader, not of the party itself. The government seemingly embarked on repressive actions to destroy the IPA, launching raids on Samedov’s apartment, and circulating reports of illegal weapons and unsanctioned religious literature found in his home. Samedov was accused of terrorism, through the alleged dissemination of religious materials that propagated radical Islam, and the organisation of a coup against the authorities. Other members of the Islamic Party were also arrested on similar charges and sentenced to long periods of imprisonment (Bedford; Djavadov). Following these arrests, the IPA members expressed their determination to continue their struggle, refusing to lay down their arms. As it had lost its most charismatic and popular leader, the party’s fortune, however, began to decline.

Although not an officially registered organisation, and thus ineligible for participation in parliamentary or presidential elections, the IPA has played a major role in the politicisation of religion in Azerbaijan. The party has publicly challenged the local authorities, manipulating the state’s anti-religious policies for its political ends. The IPA successfully mobilised people against anti-religious laws but also protested vehemently Azerbaijan’s widespread corruption and abysmal human rights record. The party enjoys relatively wide support, is active in virtually every Azerbaijani region, and continues to benefit from Iran’s sponsorship, which proved crucial in supporting the IPA’s activities in spite of the state’s crackdown on the party’s leadership. After the arrest of its leader, the party lost some support as its influence inexorably waned, leading to a reduction in its activities and a diminishment in its profile. However, the fact that the IPA had most recently mobilised high numbers of people and posed a considerable threat to authorities does somehow confirm that the party has continued to play an important role in the political life of the country.

Understanding Popular Reactions to Government Repressions

Despite mounting government repression, since 2009 the religiosity of Azerbaijani society has been rising consistently. Azerbaijani Muslims have become more religious and have engaged with greater frequency in protests against perceived injustices. This trend progressively intensified through the influence of international events also (the war in Syria and turmoil in Egypt). This section advances this line of argument by exploring a set of indicators relating to the overall religiosity of the Azerbaijani society, including the degree of the population’s self-reported religiosity, its attendance to mosques and public prayers, its adherence to Islamic traditions, and its involvement in religious protests. The analysis in the second part of the article derives from Caucasus Barometer data to substantiate claims that perceived the religiosity of Azerbaijani society increasing consistently between 2009 and 2013.

The analysis reveals that, between 2009 and 2013, Islam has become an important factor in the daily life of Azerbaijani Muslims, as confirmed by the consistent increase of Azerbaijanis who consider religion a core element of their life. The figure also captures an increase (from 51% in 2009 to 67% in 2013) in the percentage of respondents who attended religious services, at least on religious holidays. The same trend is observed in terms of adherence to religious traditions, and fasting more in particular. In 2009, 41% of respondents reported that they fasted because this is seen as a required religious tradition; by 2013, this number had risen to 58%. In 2010, more than half of the Azerbaijani population trusted religious organisations: this percentage, interestingly, rose significantly between 2010 and 2013. Finally, the wider religiosity of Azerbaijani society increased from 25% to 32% in 2011-2013. Thus, we detected a trend that sees religiosity rising across society as a whole, in spite of the religious restrictions imposed by the government and its frequent abuse of religious rights.

Interestingly, major regional differences characterised this trend, pointing to an overall growth of religiosity across Azerbaijan. Those regions that have traditionally been under external religious influence featured a more intense growth in religiosity, as reflected by the Shiite village of Nardaran on the Absheron Peninsula, where Iran’s influence facilitated the emergence of a higher degree of religiosity amongst the population and a more profound degree of respect for Islamic traditions. More than 1,000 people from Nardaran regularly attend Friday prayers in Hazrat Abulfaz Aga Mosque. The village witnessed a tendency for gender segregation, with teenage girls prevented from attending school and young women excluded from enrolment in higher education. Many young girls in Nardaran and Baku have missed their classes, because their parents did not let them go to school without wearing a hijab after the decision on headscarf bans had been enacted.

In most parts of the country, but especially on the Absheron Peninsula and more generally in the south, the population continues to participate in the Ashura marches. In the second largest city of Azerbaijan, Ganja, believers and their leaders, gather to have iftār, though this tradition is unofficially banned in Azerbaijan. Further, in Ismaili, Zaqatala, Qakh, and Geychay, Salafis follow Islamic traditions and grow their beards, in defiance of the unofficial ban (Souleimanov & Ehrmann). Different estimates reported that, most recently, the number of Azerbaijani Salafis has been rising, reaching 20,000 in 2012 (Yunusov).

These practices suggest that restrictive measures directed against Islam in Azerbaijan have created an opportunity for people to express their discontent, while frustration against the authorities contributed in turn to the awakening of the population’s mobilisation potential. Meanwhile, religious organisations such as mosques, Islamic communities, NGOs, and the IPA used their resources to mobilise people around a common purpose, uniting them around religious and universal issues.

In 2010, when the ban on hijab was originally enacted, massive religious protests erupted in Baku before spreading to various regions in Azerbaijan. The protest movement, Hicaba Azadlıq (Freedom for hijab) came to the fore in May 2010, to acquire renewed force on 10 December 2011, when protests took place in front of the Ministry of Education (Yevgrashina; Abbasov). The movement attracted protesters of different ages. The protests in Baku continued and, on 5 October 2012, erupted into violence after brutal police raids that led to numerous arrests. Amongst the arrested protestors was Abgyul Suleymanov, a prominent theologian and head of the religious community Jafari Heyat, who was charged with treason. From prison, Suleymanov called on believers to unite with the opposition. The wave of protests reached Ganja and Nardaran, where hundreds of people gathered in front of the Shah Abbas mosque to protest the hijab ban. In the Hojasen settlement of the Binagadi district of Baku, the protests acquired a violent character as believers broke the windows of the local school. Mass protests also erupted in Jalilabad, Masala, and Ganja (Guliyev).

The protests were immediately followed by official and unofficial government restrictions on religion and religious activism. Over the course of the ‘Freedom to hijab’ protests, many religious leaders, theologians, and religious activists, who had criticised the law and government policies in general, were arrested. The arrests were carried out on charges of hooliganism and illegal possession of weapons and drugs. However, human rights organisations claimed that these were prisoners of conscience (USCIRF; Abbasov). These arrests did not break the resolve of the movement, rather strengthening the protests’ continuation and facilitating the emergence of other antagonistic actions. A vivid example of social mobilisation that emerged in connection with the unjustified arrests took place in the village of Askerbeili, where on 8 June 2012 more than 100 people marched on the executive body of their village demanding the release of religious activists from their village. From 2011 on, protest actions acquired a more organised character. Certain groups of religious activists began to call for a ‘green revolution’ (Yaşıl İnqilab) publicly distributing leaflets featuring slogans like ‘Today hijab, tomorrow mosque and then what?’ (‘Bu gün hicab, sabah məscid, sonra nə?’) on Baku public transportation services. Anonymous anti-ban leaflets were also disseminated and attached to houses around the country.

In March 2013, the arrest of theologian Taleh Bagirzade led to the eruption of another series of mass protests. Religious activists claimed that Bagirov had been convicted on ‘false accusations’, presenting his detention as a result of both his harsh critique of the authorities, and the Caucasus Muslim Board more in particular, and his calls for a more objective international assessment of Azerbaijan’s human rights record. After Bagirzade’s arrest, mass religious protests erupted in Baku and Nardaran, where people took to the streets to demand his release (Human Rights Watch).

Overall, religious protests gathered momentum after the decision on the hijab ban was enacted. It became an impetus for Muslims belonging to different strains of Islam to unite, mobilising around religious communities and mosques around a collective purpose. The government’s indiscriminate and reactive repression united Muslims against the Azerbaijani state, which then became the ‘enemy’. Mosques and religious communities were the anchor points around which the believers gathered and from where their mobilisation acquired force. The demands of the protesters were directed to the preservation of Islamic traditions, denouncing a series of injustices, including false accusations of religious activists and restriction on religious freedom. The solidarity of the protestors manifested itself in demonstrations against the arrests of theologians and other religious activists. It needs to be mentioned that in January 2013, Christoph Strasser, a rapporteur for the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, presented a report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan indicating more than 30 cases of religion-related political charges. The report has grouped the cases according to three major trials: the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, the ‘Said Dadashbeyli’ group, and the ‘Hijab case’.


Islam in Azerbaijan is a multi-layered phenomenon, with Muslims belonging to different branches and sub-branches of Islam. After Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991, the country began to experience an Islamic resurgence, which was initially employed by the Azerbaijani government as a tool to consolidate Azerbaijani identity and position Azerbaijan in the Muslim world. Concurrently, Islamic resurgence in Azerbaijan has been also shaped by external forces that were trying to influence emerging Islamic practices. Thus, Islam in Azerbaijan can be characterised as a complex interplay of various social, political (internal and external), and ideological factors. Its rise was devoid of linearity and coherence as different stakeholders pursued mutually exclusive goals with no less divergent strategies.

Another peculiarity of Islam in Azerbaijan is the fact that it is often used as a tool to protest against the government. Different regions of the country have witnessed incessant waves of religious protests, which came to be interpreted as manifestations of deepening Islamic sentiments and as indications of increasing social discontent with the government policies. On the other hand, government reactions to the protests demonstrated that the regime in Baku experienced only partial success in restraining Islamic activism. Despite the fact that it has reduced the number of religious communities and arrested their leaders, government repression also boosted public discontent, thus contributing to the mobilisation of religious people throughout the country. By looking at emerging Islamic activism in Azerbaijan from 2009 to 2013 and by using the theoretical framework of social movement theory, the article explained how Islamic revival in Azerbaijani society served as an alternative avenue for the emergence of social movements.