Can Azerbaijan have its own Erdogan?

Conference Room of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic's First Parliament
Conference Room of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic's First Parliament

It has been 25 years since the fall of the USSR, and it would appear that the fervor of religious revival witnessed since the late 1980s has slowed down to a certain extent. 

But this was not entirely expected. Indeed, the speed with which different religious groups propagated and found sympathy in the eyes of the Azerbaijani public since the late 1980s frightened many who thought that Islamic governance might follow (Soviet) authoritarian rule. 

However, the generation born of and after the same time period has occupied a powerful position in the life of the country, and while their views on social and political issues may not be homogenous, they are, for the most part, of a secular nature. And thus the creation of a theocratic state in Azerbaijan is highly unlikely. 

But why has Azerbaijan been able to resist the pull towards Islamism, and what will keep it at bay in the future?  

Modern Azerbaijani identity has its roots in the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (1918 - 1920), the foundation of which was the political unification of the Sunni and Shi’a communities in Azerbaijan - led by the Ittihad (Unity) Party, in addition to the official, secularist approach of the country's leadership and parliament. 

This coalition of values has proved itself neither artificial or deluded, and has been put to the test twice in the 20th century: as the Russian Empire started to crumble, Muslim regions of the Empire experienced a surge in nationalist and religious movements. But unlike the Northern Caucasus or Central Asia, this tendency in Azerbaijan was led not by those desiring the establishment of a government based on sharia law, but rather by secular minds and intellectuals. 

This was also true of the period immediately following the disintegration of the USSR. Again, the march towards independence in Azerbaijan was guided not by religious ideology, but rather, as during the Republican period, secular nationalism. 

Dominant Identity, Latent Identity 

During the USSR, the boundaries of secularism were pushed to include not only the intellectual elite, but also to encompass the Sunni and Shi’a communities, and consequently helped strengthen the newly - formed, unified and secular Azerbaijani identity.

However, in my opinion, this was not a result of the repressive Stalinist period, during which religious policy was associated with organizations such as the “Union of the Militant Godless.” Instead, secularism gained credence in the eyes of population due to an overall improvement in the quality of life and overall progress in the USSR starting with The Khruschev Thaw, which allowed for the gradual liberalization of society. 

The forceful and repressive imposition of secularism, accompanied by restrictions on other personal freedoms including religious practices, may have delivered quite different results.

For example, if you examine the secularist regimes imposed by Atatürk in Turkey, Reza Shah in Iran and even, to a certain extent, Amanullah in Afghanistan, you see quite the opposite: instead of praising the benefits of secularism, the peoples in these countries in many instances rose up against these new ideologies. The Islamic elements of society took measures to counter secularism, and Islamic ideology began to resonate even within the secular segment of society to the extent that intellectuals in Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan have at different periods in the history of these States provided support for political Islam as a more viable alternative to heavy - handed, authoritarian secularism. 

Secularism is endangered not by religious fervor, but by totalitarianism.

Why then, did Azerbaijan escape the Islamic fate of Iran, Afghanistan and, to an extent, Turkey? 

For starters, the living conditions in the USSR were, on average, better than in the above -mentioned countries. The marked improvement in living conditions in the USSR after WWII garnered even greater popularity for secularism, but the totalitarian system posed a potential danger. By replacing secularism with militant atheism - i.e. attempting to eliminate religion through repression - the totalitarian regime inadvertently cast suspicion on its own propaganda and agenda, resulting in a contradiction between reality and appearances. 

And thus, Soviet Azerbaijani society retained at least an emotional attachment to its Muslim identity, which entrenched itself in the form of passive objection. And when the system began to weaken, the likelihood of a religious revival became very real: the weaknesses of the achievements of the “godless” Soviet Union became prominent, revealing themselves like bulging bellies. And in Central Asia and the North Caucasus, countries without a strong and well-supported historical tradition of secularism, Islam became a tempting alternative on the horizon. 

And yet it never happened in Azerbaijan. 

As globalization and the internet continue to push the boundaries of information and as living conditions continue to improve, secularism in Azerbaijan has steadily strengthened itself. But in order for it to be continuous, democratic society and the mechanisms through which it functions must be strengthened: criticism, questions, discussions and compromises must become a daily part of public life. 

A secular government cannot entirely eliminate the threat of Islamic revival; there will always be differences between those loyal to religious dogma and those who abide by a more secular lifestyle. And in this case, neither repression nor government-propaganda garbed in the guise of progress and education can help - and thus the tools and mechanisms at the disposal of democratic society, if they are able to continuously show their invaluable strength and importance, are the only means available to secure harmony between religion, society and secularism. 

It is for this very reason that I believe authoritarianism poses the most serious threat to secularism. If we continue to observe a deepening of social inequality, a decline in the quality of education and the systematic removal of a secular opposition in Azerbaijan, political Islam may rear its head to present itself as an alternative to a system that has otherwise sidelined and discarded a vast majority of the country’s population.

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This article has been translated from the original Azeri published by Azadliq Radiosu.