A conference titled “The role of youth in the fight against terrorism, extremism and radicalism” was held in Baku on the 3rd of March.
The event brought together senior officials of the Department of Public and Political Affairs of the Presidential Administration, the Azerbaijani Parliament and State Security Service as well as experts from several organizations, youth representatives and political scientists.
During the conference, challenges that terrorism poses both domestically and internationally were discussed.
Azerbaijan is a secular country that constitutionally allows freedom of religion to its citizens. However, after seven decades of state-promoted atheism under Soviet rule, religiosity in Azerbaijan has been on the rise since independence in 1991. State Security Service Lieutenant General Madat Guliyev reported during the conference that upwards of 900 Azerbaijani citizens have joined the ranks of ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq under the influence of radical organizations.
“In recent years, 84 Azerbaijani citizens have been convicted [of terrorist activities] and over the course of the last year, 54 were stripped of their citizenship for taking part in terrorist activities in Syria and Iraq”, added Guliyev.
According to Guliyev, religious radicalism has become more widespread not only in Azerbaijan in recent years but in the region as a whole, including Central Asia and Turkey.
Azerbaijan has tried to portray itself as a partner in the fight against terrorism, having joined the anti-terrorism coalition back in 2001, and having provided a peacekeeping contingent of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces to Afghanistan. Currently, around 100 soldiers are deployed there.
Domestically, Azerbaijan has tried to avoid the rise of radicalism and maintain the secular nature of the country with a heavy hand. Back in 1995, the Supreme Court revoked the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA)’s registration, and over the years, several religious groups, both Sunni and Shia, have been targeted by the government.
At times, however, circumstances have been highly controversial. The most recent example of the government’s heavy handed approach to religion is the ‘Nardaran Affair’, when 16 members of the Shia movement group Muslim Unity were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison earlier this year.
Defendants were found guilty on several charges, among which plotting to overthrow the government and arms trafficking were included. The fairness of the trial has been widely called into question by both domestic and international organizations.