Islamists have occupied a marginal role in post-Soviet Azerbaijani politics, not least because of their strained relations both with the Azerbaijani government and the country’s secular opposition parties.

But there is an intriguing political process underway in Azerbaijan today. Against the backdrop of widening social and political unrest, Azerbaijan’s Islamists appear to be taking a more visible role in opposition politics in the run-up to October’s presidential elections, thus contradicting a roughly 20-year trend which has kept Islamist and secular opposition forces largely at odds with each other.

The term “Islamists” in the Azerbaijani case does not refer to a unified group with a single, authoritative leader, but rather to a spectrum of groups and networks which reflect generational cleavages, have numerous spokespeople, and whose respective relations with secular opposition factions have followed varying trajectories over the past two decades. In short, it is a complicated and hard-to-define movement. It should be duly noted that any talk of religiously-motivated political actors in Azerbaijan is a purely Shia phenomenon, as the country’s Sunni groups have all but rejected political involvement.

Nevertheless, the increasingly conciliatory tone between Islamists and some secular oppositionists, however embryonic, may signal a greater impetus among independent political actors of all stripes in Azerbaijan to build a more inclusive political force in opposition to the government of Ilham Aliyev.

Old Guard Islamists and Secular Oppositionists: A Troubled Relationship

Azerbaijan’s Islamists emerged during the late 1980s, primarily in the form of religious activists who either established independent organizations or became involved in Azerbaijan’s pro-independence, nationalist Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF) movement.

Current IPA leadership, with vice-chairman Rovshan Ahmedli on the left. Click for link.

Current IPA leadership, with vice-chairman Rovshan Ahmedli on the left. Click for link.

A number of small religious organizations, such as Tovba (“Repentance”), proliferated beginning in 1989. However, it was not until the post-independence establishment of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA) by religious APF members that Azerbaijan’s Islamists emerged as a separate—albeit weak—political force.

The IPA was established in 1991 in the village of Nardaran, which is located several kilometers north of Baku and is known as an historical bastion of Shi’ism and religious piety in Azerbaijan. The IPA was officially registered as a political party under the APF government of Abulfaz Elchibey in 1992 with a platform based on the Koran and hadith as unifying forces in post-Soviet Azerbaijan. Though its leadership initially cooperated with the APF, the party rejected the movement’s pro-Turkic ideology and retained warm relations with Iran, an especially consequential combination given Elchibey’s pan-Turkic tendencies and vehement anti-Iranian rhetoric.

Panah Hussein, a former prime minister under Elchibey and a co-founder of the APF, highlighted the ideological split between Islamists and secularists. “At the end of the 1980s,” according to Hussein, “we [the secularists and Islamists] worked together. At that time, the most prominent Islamist was Haji Aliakram Aliyev, later the chairman of the Islamic Party. He was a member of the APF, and he also referred to himself as the most prominent Khomeinist…Later, the Islamists split from us and accused us of serving the interests of the West and Israel….They even criticized us and became our enemies to a greater degree than the [Aliyev] government.”

Nor did Islamists fare well under the post-APF government of former Azerbaijani Communist Party First Secretary Heydar Aliyev. Though relations between the IPA and Aliyev were initially cordial after the latter’s election as president in late 1993, the party was stripped of its registration in 1995 and barred from participating in parliamentary elections. Moreover, Haji Aliakram and several other party leaders were arrested in 1996 and charged with espionage on behalf of Iran.

Aliyev’s unconditional pardoning of these party members in 1999, however, cast much doubt on the merit of the charges. As the IPA’s current vice chairman, Rovshan Ahmedli, highlighted, “if they really committed treason against the motherland, how was it possible to pardon them after three years? I think the authorities simply knew that they were not guilty of treason and had committed no crimes.”

Following its deregistration and arrests, the IPA’s new leadership pursued closer ties with secular opposition forces. In 1997 the IPA signed agreements with the smaller Liberal and Social-Democratic Parties, and in 1998 it began talks with the opposition party Musavat.

“In the late 1990s new Islamic Party leaders emerged, and they came to us [Musavat] with an offer of cooperation,” recalled Isa Gambar, a founding member of the APF and Musavat’s chairman since 1992. “We answered that we were prepared to discuss the conditions for this cooperation, as long as the Islamic Party agreed with the secular character of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the existing constitution, and the norms of democracy. Otherwise our cooperation would surely be difficult. They said that the term ‘secular’ did not suit them, because secular is a negative term in the religious sense, but that they accepted the Azerbaijani constitution and were ready to operate within its framework.

“Some time passed in discussions, but in the end conservative elements within the Islamic Party stopped the negotiations, and for us it was not possible to give up our principles. Likewise, some conservative elements within Musavat were not interested in deepening this dialogue. Therefore, cooperation between our parties did not work out at that time.”

The IPA essentially spent the next decade in the political wilderness until, in 2007, Haji Movsum Samedov was elected chairman and began a strategic transformation of the party. Samedov replaced the IPA’s ruling structure and embarked on a policy of establishing regional party cells, focusing more on youth involvement, and using the Internet as a means of supporting the party’s message.

At the same time, the IPA’s relations with secular oppositionists soured under the new leadership. Samedov eschewed cooperation with secular opposition parties; spoke out against the United States, Israel, and the West; and underlined the party’s close relations with Iran. In 2011, Samedov was arrested along with several other IPA functionaries following his sharp criticism of President Ilham Aliyev in a Youtube video, and he was subsequently sentenced to 12 years in prison on terrorism charges. (However, prominent independent observers, fellow Islamists, and secular oppositionists alike view Samedov’s arrest as politically motivated, and it should be noted that false charges have systematically been applied in Azerbaijan in order to neutralize political opposition.)

A painted sign stating "Every day is Ashura, Every place is Karbala, Ya Hussein" in Nardaran. Courtesy of the author.

A painted sign stating “Every day is Ashura, Every place is Karbala, Ya Hussein” in Nardaran. Courtesy of the author.

Impetus for Cooperation?

The Islamic Party provides an interesting case not simply because of its status as the most institutionalized religiously-motivated political organization in Azerbaijan, but also for how its members’ tone and engagement with secular oppositionists have evolved in the months prior to Azerbaijan’s October 2013 presidential elections.

Indeed, IPA leaders have adopted a more conciliatory approach toward the secular opposition. “I believe there is greater solidarity and consolidation [among oppositionists] regardless of party affiliation,” stated IPA vice chairman Ahmedli. “Everyone understands that we must free ourselves from this illegal government. We must fight together so that we will have a lawful, constitutional state.”

IPA leaders have also had more positive, tangible engagement with secular oppositionists, especially with the opposition movement “EL”, which was formally established in March 2013. Chaired by former Heydar Aliyev aide Eldar Namazov and supported by the Moscow-based film director and presidential candidate Rustam Ibragimbekov, “EL” incorporated two prominent IPA leaders into its ruling structure. IPA vice chairman Ahmedli, who also serves as chairman of the “Islamic Resistance Movement for the Freedom of Karabakh”, was appointed as Eldar Namazov’s advisor on religious issues. Moreover, he serves as a deputy member of the movement’s Supreme Assembly. Natiq Kerimov, who is a high-ranking IPA functionary and the chairman of Nardaran’s influential Council of Elders, was likewise a founding member of “EL”.

Furthermore, Islamists were included in the membership of the recently-created National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF), a coalition of opposition groups which was established in order to choose a single opposition presidential candidate to run against Ilham Aliyev. In addition to Ahmedli and Kerimov, the NCDF’s 129-member list includes jailed Islamists Movsum Samedov, Abgul Suleymanov, and Tale Bagirov as “prisoners of conscience”.

Abgul Suleymanov. Courtesy

Abgul Suleymanov. Courtesy

“It is very good that some [secular oppositionists] already want to know our opinions and invite us to conferences and meetings,” stated Ahmedli. “It’s obvious that they would like for Islamist forces to work together with them. But, as I have always said, if they simply want to exploit our influence, then we will accomplish nothing. We must sincerely work together.”

But the Islamic Party is not the only religious group in Azerbaijan which has taken a stance on political issues.

Activists such as Haji Azer Ramizoglu and Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who were prominent figures in the independent Shia Juma Mosque community in Baku, embarked on a number of politically-sensitive human rights initiatives in the late 1990s. In contrast to the IPA, Haji Ilgar openly supported Isa Gambar’s candidacy against Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan’s 2003 presidential elections. Though briefly arrested and permanently banned from preaching in the Juma mosque, he continues his human rights work and remains on good terms with all secular opposition factions and members of the Islamic Party alike.

A new generation of Azerbaijani Islamists has also emerged in recent years. Consisting primarily of younger, foreign-trained Shia clerics, these Islamists’ sermons and statements have taken on an increasingly political character in opposition to the Aliyev government.

Notably, the Nardaran-based imam Tale Bagirov, who received religious training in the Shia centers of Qom and Najaf, was jailed in March 2013 following an anti-government sermon he gave near Baku. Bagirov was quoted as saying, “You have stolen people’s land, you have stolen the oil, and you still sit there with no one to say anything to you. Now you want to rule in the mosque too? No matter how influential an official is, he cannot rule inside the mosque.”

Tale Bagirov. Courtesy

Tale Bagirov. Courtesy

Following Bagirov’s arrest, another prominent jailed Islamist and leader of the organizations Milli Menevi Deyerler (“National-Moral Values”) and Ceferi Heyeti (“Team of Jafaris”)—Abgul Suleymanov—published an open letter encouraging Azerbaijani Islamists to unite with the country’s secular opposition forces.

Moreover, in late May Bagirov issued a statement from prison in which he called on western governments to judge Azerbaijan’s political situation with greater objectivity. “The pro-government media, which tries to prevent the rise of democratic forces,” according to Bagirov, “is sowing distrust among the masses, even though the people only want one thing: democratic elections. Such regimes can remain in power with the support of western countries, though this support is lost over the years. Beware of the godless regimes that introduce corruption at the expense of the national wealth.”

Thus, in 2013 alone, both old-guard Islamists and a younger generation of politically-minded Shia clerics began calling for democratic change in Azerbaijan, simultaneously showing support for cooperation between Islamists and secular opposition forces.

…Or Lingering Suspicion?

The number of convinced Islamists in Azerbaijan is, admittedly, relatively small, especially considering the dominant secular attitudes of the country’s population.

Likewise, the notion of greater cooperation between secular oppositionists and Islamists in the 2013 election cycle is unlikely to tip the scales in favor of opposition candidates. Indeed, President Ilham Aliyev is widely expected to win a third term and despite the outbreak of several anti-government protests in 2013,  Aliyev enjoys a relatively high trust rating. According to a recent Caucasus Barometer survey released by the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC), 60 percent of Azerbaijanis indicated that they fully trust the president while 23 percent somewhat trust him.

Concomitantly, Azerbaijan’s secular opposition parties have largely been discredited as serious political contenders over the last two decades. The short stint of power which the secularists enjoyed under Elchibey was marred by social and economic chaos. Even after Heydar Aliyev’s ascendancy to the presidency, secular opposition parties were unable to coalesce around a single leader or offer tangible political alternatives. To its credit, the National Council nominated Rustam Ibragimbekov as a single presidential candidate on July 2, though it remains uncertain whether Musavat will continue its support for Ibragimbekov in the long run.

Finally, while relations between Islamist and secular opposition groups are improving to a certain extent, there seems to remain a good deal of mutual suspicion regarding the sincerity of each camp’s political overtures.

On the one hand, many secularists express doubts about Islamists’ long-term commitment to democracy. “Only the future will show whether our cooperation with Islamist forces will work out,” said Isa Gambar, whose Musavat party would be crucial for any concerted joint opposition effort, given its relatively high membership as well as its countrywide party structure.

“Everything is still on the level of discussions,” stated Gambar. “On the one hand, common problems and interests unite us. The common problem is that there is no freedom in our society, and thus we live under a repressive regime….But we are not completely certain about their [Islamists’] loyalty to democratic principles. There is a concern in society that Islamists, through the use of social and democratic norms, may try to establish their ideology by force. Naturally, secular oppositionists and democratic forces do not like this perspective very much.”

Islamists, on the other hand, express concerns that some secular oppositionists have tried to monopolize the notion of a democratic opposition force, and in so doing they have called the Islamists’ commitment to democratic values into question.

“I don’t think that relations with Islamists are completely normalized,” indicated Rovshan Ahmedli. “We Islamists speak of consensus, but sometimes democrats from the Popular Front or other leading opposition parties are asked whether Islamists could somehow work together with democratic forces. And they answer no, that democrats are the primary [opposition] forces in the country. This is not the right answer. One must instead ask what the difference really is? If an Islamist undertakes a democratic struggle and proceeds together with other democratic forces, why is it necessary to distinguish between Islamist, Musavatist, or Frontist? We must reject such questions and answers.”

In terms of establishing an official Islamist ideology, Ahmedli conceded that, “In general, there are no possibilities to create a Sharia state in Azerbaijan. Firstly, there is no tradition of such a state here. Secondly, we have no specialists who know Sharia.”

The nascent rapprochement between Islamists and certain secularist forces, if sustained, may slightly shift the makeup of Azerbaijan’s opposition forces to include a greater number of religiously-motivated political actors into the opposition realm.

Nevertheless, factionalism and entrenched personal interests remain major issues for cooperation between Azerbaijan’s opposition camps.

As Ahmedli recalled, “[Popular Front party chairman] Ali Kerimli recently suggested to create a general command…And I answered that, if this command is strong—even if its leader is weak—we will receive a higher percentage [in elections] than if we were to have, say, a weak command and strong leader. In this command, regardless of whether one is a believer, non-believer, democrat, Musavatist, or Frontist, we want to fight together in order to change the regime and create a new, better situation. But if everyone is to fight for their own interests, the [Aliyev] regime will remain in power for a number of years to come.”

Thomas Liles was a US Fulbright Fellow and International Fellow at the Caucasus Research Resource Center—Azerbaijan (CRRC), where he researched Islam and politics in Azerbaijan. He has previously written for the Atlantic Council of the United States and the European Centre for Minority Issues and can be followed @LilesTom. The views expressed herein are those of the Author and do not reflect those of CRRC or the Fulbright Program.