Analysis - Tuesday, November 1, 2011 0:04 - 0 Comments

National Identity, the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Revival of Islam in Azerbaijan


Since the breakdown of the Soviet system in 1991, Islam has become important for filling the vacuum of the ideological and national identity of an independent Azerbaijan. While most Azerbaijanis have remained secular, the practice of Islam has grown significantly in the country in last two decades. Islam has attracted a growing number of worshippers, and the number of mosques had increased rapidly until Azerbaijani government has taken measures in recent years, even brutal ones, to control the religious situation in the country.

Considering that Islam was in stagnation stage three decades ago, as result of negative attitude of communist policy, the question is what made Islam so popular in Azerbaijan where practicing religion had been banned in Soviet times, for 70 years.

The ideological gap after communism, the search of national identity, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are the main factors that caused a flourishing revival of Islam in Azerbaijan. Among those in particular, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is significant and it is worth looking at the related factors that have made religion popular. This paper aims to uncover the role of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the revival of Islam in Azerbaijan.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict influenced the revival of Islam in a meandering way, rather than making its impact obvious. It is one of the intractable conflicts of the post-Soviet area that still remains unsolved despite attempts both by the sides in conflict and the international community to find a solution (Maiese, 2003). The conflict began shortly after Gorbachev announced his reform programs of perestroika and glasnost. The concept of glasnost was openness, transparency, or publicity, and the Communist Party approved the policy at its 27th Party Convention in February 1986. Although the gist of the concept was mostly based on economic reforms, it gradually led to a change towards democracy, and the government had difficulty controlling it. The economic reforms were not popular, while democracy and nationalism were. (Kaufman, 1996). The space for change established by glasnost brought about expressed ethnic disputes as well.

Memories and myths led both Armenians and Azerbaijanis to have doubts about each other and shape a violent attitude. At first, forgotten historical events evolved into legends that justified the superiority of one group over another, stimulated desires for retribution, or sustained group hatred. While on one hand the Armenians of Karabakh remembered the 1915 genocide committed against them, Azerbaijanis on the other hand, who long regarded the Armenians as “troublemakers,” recalled their memories of the February 1905 massacre—the bloody clash between Armenians and Tatars (Azeris) during the oil boom in Baku.

Thus, glasnost created an opportunity for those nations to remember historical memories and fuel tension. The killing of Armenians in the Azerbaijani town of Sumgait in February 1988 was perceived as the next “genocide,” reviving memories of the massacres and deportations of 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks (Suny, 1989).

Among Azerbaijanis, the conflict was evaluated as the war between “Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan,” and the conflict escalated the feelings of national identity among Azerbaijanis. The threat of territorial loss inspired nationalist cohesion, and as a reaction to the disputed fate of Nagorno-Karabakh a nationalist opposition—the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA)—was formed in 1989.

National identity can be based on a variety of factors including language, cultural values, shared history, and physical characteristics—anything that a group of people feels that binds them together and unites them as one people.  Of the many traits that can serve as the basis for a national identity, religion is perhaps the most powerful characteristic that can be attached to nationalism.

Although its initial mission was defending territorial integrity, with the religious element never having been significant to its policy, in response to nationalistic sentiment the PFA held a specific approach to Islam. In its conference in 1989, the movement declared its charter, which announced that freedom of expression and religious identity should be respected in the country and that all mosques should be restored and be used by believers. The PFA leader, Abulfaz Elchibey, often mentioned in his speeches the respect of Azerbaijanis for religion (Yunusov, 2004). Some negotiations between the PFA leaders and communist authorities were observed with the participation of the head of the Caucasus Spiritual Board of Muslims, Sheik Haji Allahshukur Pahazade[1].

During the rule of the national democrats (1992-1993), the Law on Freedom of Worship was adopted. All property taken by the Soviets from mosques and religious communities was to be returned. The Soviet authorities accused Azerbaijan of starting a national movement of religious fundamentalists, and Gorbachev’s decided to send troops to Baku in January 19, 1990.

More than hundred people were killed by Soviet troops[2]. Numbers of victims vary between 130 and 200[3], [4].

Soviet authorities explained it an attempt to prevent an Islamic threat, which gained sympathy from the West[5]. Religion as a way of mobilizing Azerbaijanis around a nationalist movement made the West reluctant to help Azerbaijan, which resulted in the rejection of Western values and distrust of the West[6].

In the initial stage of conflict, unhopeful about Russia’s help in finding a fair solution to the conflict, the Azerbaijanis relied on the United States most of all. Nevertheless, Freedom Supports Act 907a was passed by the United States Congress with the powerful influence of Armenian lobby and Armenia received US aid in the region, while Azerbaijan was left out of U.S aid distribution (Basher, 2008).

U.S. humanitarian assistance to the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh damaged the West’s reputation in Azerbaijan.  Azerbaijanis regarded this legislative bill as discriminatory and as a measure that punished the victim (Ismailzade, 2005). US foreign policy towards the conflict stayed in favor of Armenian side until Caspian oil arrangements came on the scene (Basher, 2008).

Skepticism on the fairness of western values within the Azerbaijani public increased while the West showed its interest in oil during the mid-1990s, rather than aiding Azerbaijan in conflict resolution. The West’s image was associated with an interest only in money, rather than humanistic values (Cornell 2006).

There were several UN Security Council Resolutions calling for withdrawal of the occupying forces, condemning Armenia in early 1990s. However, Nagorno-Karabakh authorities rejected the resolution declaring that it was biased (Basher 2008). Despite four resolutions recognizing Karabakh as part of the Azerbaijani Republic and non-recognition of Nagorno Karabakh Republic’s (NKR) declaration of independence  by any state, .Nagorno-Karabakh remained, still remains, dependent on Armenia (Simao, 2010).

At a time when Azerbaijan was neglected by the West, the support of Muslim countries soothed the pain of Azerbaijanis. The Organization of the Islamic Conference was the first, and is so far the only, international body that openly condemned Armenia for aggression over Nagorno-Karabakh. It has called for the immediate and unconditional liberation of the occupied Azeri territories. Thus, the vacuum, whose closure was so important for Azerbaijanis experiencing hard times and seeking support, was filled by “Muslim brothers” (Valiyev, 2005)

However, this support from Muslim countries was not political. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the nationalism movement in Azerbaijan made Iran fearful of a nationalist challenge within its own borders. The nationalistic policy of the PFA was especially intimidating for the Iranian authorities. Fearing that Iranian Azerbaijanis could demand their annexation to northern Azerbaijan, Iran preferred to support Yerevan in the conflict (Cornell, 2006), (Ismailzade, 2005)

Turkey, however, did not hurry to support Azerbaijan immediately at the beginning of the conflict. Only in 1993 did Turkey actively support Azerbaijan and joined Azerbaijan’s embargo of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The help coming from the Muslim world was humanitarian and directly targeted Azerbaijani citizens. In the early 1990s, the conflict established a chaotic situation and frustration in Azerbaijani society. The conflict remained unsolved and gradually the country was losing its western regions to the Armenians. The frustration increased with each loss and the number of refugees and internally displaced persons got higher. Azerbaijan had 800, 000 refugees and internally displaced persons, one seventh of the whole population, living in refugee camps (Cornell, 2006)

Starting from the early 1990s, Iran and several Arabic countries sent their humanitarian aid to their Muslims brothers, accompanied with a religious mission and ideology. They launched their activities mostly in extremely poor refugee camps among people displaced by “Christian Armenians.” Among those working in refugee camps were Iranian Hizballah, the Imdad Khomeini Committee, and Salafi missionary organizations from Saudi Arabia.(Valiyev, 2008). By 1994, fifteen Arabic charities had opened branches in different parts of the country (Goyushov 2008).  Besides distributing humanitarian aid, those missionary groups opened religious schools-madrasas and recruited young people for religious education in their home countries.

The war in Chechnya, where Salafi movement has taken place since the First Chechen War (Cornell, 2006), brought about by Muslims fighting for their freedom from Christian Russia, made the Islamic factor salient. Small groups of Chechens had fought in the ranks of the Azerbaijani army during the course of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and this had strengthened the bond between the Chechen and Azerbaijani people (Kelkitli, 2008). Some Azerbaijanis, mostly from the northern regions, joined Chechen militants in the announced jihad against Russia, while Chechens joined the Azerbaijani side in the fight over Nagorno-Karabakh.  Meanwhile, media printed reports on the treatment of Chechen guerrillas in Azerbaijani hospitals (Stern, 2005), (Kelkitli, 2008), (Veliyev, 2006) In his visit to Azerbaijan in 1997, Chechen president Aslan Maskhatov met Azerbaijani president Haydar Aliyev and expressed his gratitude to Azerbaijanis for support, as well as offering help with its Nagorno-Karabakh problem (Hunter, 2004).

The Salafi movement, which arrived in Chechnya and had its influential role in the Chechen-Russian war, moved to Azerbaijan in the mid-1990s from the North Caucasus (Valiyev, 2005). Like other missionary groups, they targeted those who were victims of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, providing them with humanitarian aid. However, unlike most missionary groups, the Salafis included Nagorno-Karabakh issues into their preaching, underlining the return of Karabakh as necessary and blaming the government for the failure to defend it (Valiyev, 2005).

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict indirectly played an essential role in fostering an environment for the revival of Islam. From the conflict emerged a nationalist movement that used the Islamic factor to mobilize people and form national identity. I propose it is Islam that stayed at the core of new identities. Islam was successful as a core for people to gather around, and it became partly responsible for the formation of a new identity. Islamic activity seemed to have more success among the population, as its basic values are flexible for self-awareness and forming a national identity. In Azerbaijan, religion served the identity impulse more powerfully and comprehensively than any other repositories of cultural meaning could do. It provided powerful support to individuals to establish and maintain their identities. Religion provided a secure spot for supporting the occurrence of intergroup identity and helped many people construct their sense of self.

Initially for Azerbaijanis, religious identity was not loyalty to one’s religion or religious group, but rather an attachment to the nation. However, gradually it shifted from national identity to religious belief, mostly accelerated by missionary groups coming from Islamic countries.

Those missionary groups were attractive to vulnerable citizens living in unexpected poverty caused by the conflict and uncertainty in the country. The moral relief and humanitarian aid provided by missionary groups was especially appealing to those who, besides being extremely poor, were also displaced. Their disillusionment with Russia and the West made them trust and follow those who offered them their helping hands. The main aim of the missionary groups that successfully tapped them was to stir up the religious feelings of Azerbaijanis.



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Institute for Economies in Transition BOFIT

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