Azeri social media is abuzz with the possibility that Azerbaijan could go from majority Shi’ite to majority Sunni, at least culturally – some even suggest Baku wants this to happen.
In an article published recently, Ali Abbasov of OnKavkaz network argues Baku is well aware of the tensions between Twelver Shi’ite Iran and the Muslim world and seeks to move towards the latter to gain security against the former.
This isn’t unfeasible. 60% of Azeris apparently identify as Shi’ite and 40% as Sunni, a gap closing fast. This counts cultural “Muslims” as well as practising ones. That 40% has grown, partly due to once-irreligious Azeris finding Islam and leaving Shi’ism.
Azerbaijan has largely been irreligious (a relic of the communist era) to the extent that people refer to mosques as “Turkish” or “Iranian” rather than Muslim (Sunni) or Shi’ite. The changing winds have not gone unnoticed by many. Some also speculate that President Aliyev, having noticed the increased religious awakening among neighbouring Turks shedding the dictatorial legacy of Atatürk, is seeking to gain his ally Erdoğan’s favour by encouraging this.
Much could simply be down to Aliyev’s fear of Iranian influence, increasingly subversive. Iranian money and unauthorised weapons were found after Shi’ites fought police in Nardaran, an area known for Shi’a extremism.
Some put it down to Baku viewing the Talysh and Tat Shi’ites as an obstacle. These groups, linguistically tied to Iran, don’t share Aliyev’s pan-Turkic view of Azerbaijani identity and (it is alleged) he wishes to sideline them. This could account for recent repressive measures against these groups.
Questions remain as to the validity of this theory. The reality on the ground often tends to be very different. Sunni mosques and religious groups are routinely harassed; some are even forced to convert to Shi’ism or close. Others can’t register. Women wearing hijab are frowned on.
What’s clear is Azerbaijan’s demographic shift. What’s unclear is if Aliev (a Shi’ite) is keen on it.