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Role of Islam

The role of Islam has increased in the past several years, with religious communities much more active in social outreach. An overwhelmingly Muslim nation, Azerbaijan is divided between those who demand tolerance for all Islamic communities and those who see the activity of so-called Islamic “extremist” groups as a threat to political and social stability. Where should the line be drawn?

Pro-Government: Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP):

“YAP is for the separation of religion and state,” says Deputy Executive Secretary Mubariz Gurbanly, and adds that government use of religion to exercise power is “unacceptable.” The party believes that women should not be allowed to cover their heads for passport photos or to observe hijab in school. “YAP’s position is: no religious activity in the schools. Passport regulations [that maintain that a woman’s head should be uncovered] must be followed. Also, people under 18 are not of legal age and cannot be the targets for religious conversion.” At the same time, he adds, YAP is tolerant of all religious faiths expect those espoused by “radical groups.”

Opposition: Azadlig (Freedom) Bloc:

“Azadlig supports maintaining secularism with the full implementation of all freedoms, including freedom of religion. Not only Islam, but all traditional religions should be tolerated in Azerbaijan,” says Fakhmin Hajiyev, deputy head of Azadlig’s campaign. Commenting on calls for increased surveillance of mosques, Hajiyev says that the blocc does not support the closure of mosques for political reasons and argues that “the government should not interfere in religious affairs unless religious communities violate the law.”

Opposition: Yeni Siyasat (YeS – New Policy) Bloc:

Campaign manager Rashid Hajili believes that radical Islam is expanding in Azerbaijan, fueled in part by the lack of democracy and civil rights. “However, it has not reached a critical point,” Hajili says, in reference to the rise of fundamentalism. “Law enforcement agencies should keep an eye on this process and prevent expansion of radical Islam. Democracy also must develop in Azerbaijan to decrease radicalization of society.”

Opposition: Liberal Party of Azerbaijan (LPA):

Deputy Chairman Avaz Temirkhan states that the party advocates “the ideas promoted by [the late] Pope John Paul II for a dialogue of civilizations” and supports freedom of religious belief. The party supports providing practicing Muslims with opportunities for religious activity that do not venture into extremism, he says, and advocates a dialogue between Azerbaijan’s Islamic community and the government on resolving the question of allowing women to wear a traditional Islamic head covering in passport photos.

Candidate: Rasim Musabekov, Independent
Constituency: # 23 Nasimi-Sabail
Location: Downtown Baku

Musavekov calls the growing role of Islam “normal” since Azerbaijan “is still transitioning from the state-sanctioned atheism of the Soviet period.” Yet he cautions that “moving away from a secular government, even in taking a softer approach toward the Islamic model, cannot be tolerated by any means.” Warns Musavekov: Cooperation between moderate Islamic communities and democratic political parties and human rights organizations “will lead to increased confrontation with traditional clergy and radical Islamists.”

Candidate: Ayten Shirinova, Independent
Constituency: # 29 Sabail
Location: Downtown Baku

Azerbaijan’s tolerance of other religions as an Islamic country will facilitate its integration with Europe, Shirinova argues. “This [tolerance] is, in fact, how a state that is mostly made up by Muslims could be easily considered a part of European culture. From this point of view, Azerbaijan could be a good example even for many developed Western countries.”

Candidate: Rustam Aliyev, New Parliament – New Names Bloc, Owner of FM radio station
Constituency: #55, Khachmaz
Location: Khachmaz region, North Azerbaijan, along border with Russia

Aliyev notes that Islam is attracting a growing number of believers in Azerbaijan, and that that process will continue in the future. “ But I am in favor of preservation of the current secular state in Azerbaijan. Islam has to spread its values among the people, but remain separated from the state. I support the policy of tolerance, which the current Azerbaijani government is practicing toward Islam and other religions. “

AZERBAIJAN: ELECTIONS 2005 is a production of EurasiaNet.org with funding provided by the Open Society Institute.
Copyright © 2005 EurasiaNet.org.