How Baku instrumentalizes Islam

Screaming Azerbaijani soldier ” Allah is the greatest ! “ perched on an Armenian chapel just captured in Nagorno-Karabakh; an Azerbaijani president thanking “Allah for giving me the strength to free our lands from the occupiers” and cursing the “Leaders of certain Western countries who inflame Islamophobic sentiments”. These emblematic sequences seem to fit together logically in a narrative that inscribes the Nagorno-Karabakh war in a “War of civilization” opposing Islam and Christianity, the latter embodied by defeated Armenia.

Yet there are many in Azerbaijan who shuddered when they discovered Ilham Aliev’s new Islamic rhetoric. Until now, the regime has touted its model of multiculturalism and peaceful coexistence between Muslims (70% Shiites, 30% Sunnis), Christians and Jews. The authoritarian president, installed in power by his father, Heydar Aliev, in 2003, was known as much for his tastes of luxury as for the distance he put between himself and religion.

Islamologist Altay Goyushov at his home in Baku, March 4, 2021. LAURENCE GEAI FOR “THE WORLD”

For the Azerbaijani specialist in political Islam Altay Goyushov, it is “Symbolic gestures, products of a calculated government policy. The Azerbaijani authorities seized the opportunity provided by the war to accelerate the domestication of Islam “.

Contrary to appearances, the objective is not, far from it, to mobilize a population in its vast majority favorable to the reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh. The more so as the Islamic rhetoric of President Aliev really took hold two months after the end of the war, when he visited for the first time the reconquered city of Shusha (Shushi for the Armenians).

Article reserved for our subscribers Read also In Azerbaijan, autocrat Ilham Aliev made popular by war

During the three decades between the first and the second Karabakh conflict, the heated rhetoric advocating a “Jihad” for the “Reconquest of lands occupied by the Armenians” was the hobbyhorse of supporters of political Islam against the Aliev regime. The representatives of official Islam, when they evoked this theme, cautiously adopted, for their part, the language of power.

Imam Haji Soltan Buzovna gives a tour of the Buzovna Juma mosque, near Baku, on March 4, 2021. LAURENCE GEAI FOR “THE WORLD”

“Islamist activism – especially Shiite – has always been in opposition to the secular Azerbaijani authoritarian regime – which by nature does not tolerate independent activities and aims to control and guide any public discussion in the country, analyzes M. Goyushov. The war provided an opportunity for power to take over the religious discourse of the Islamists. “

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