(Before we begin it must be noted that Twelver Shi’ism and Islam are completely different religions due to various heretical beliefs within Shi’ism. While there are Shi’ites that reject the beliefs of the Twelvers (e.g. the Zayidis) the majority generally follow Twelverism).
Azeri social media is abuzz with the possibility that Azerbaijan could go from majority Shi’ite to majority Muslim (Sunni) at least nominally – 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 (and curry favour with the west and the elite of neighbouring Turkey).
Abbasov’s notes the discussion on Azeri social networks of the alleged attempts by the Azerbaijani government to return the country to (nominal) Islam. “The desire to please the West and return to the Sunni Turkic family pushes Aliyev to a bold experiment”, writes Abbasov.
Historically, the lands of modern Azerbaijan, as well as neighboring Iran, were inhabited by Sunnis. And gave the Islamic world a large number of Sunni scholars and thinkers.
However, the Turkic-speaking Safavid dynasty that came to power in Iran, in its confrontation with the Sunni Ottoman Sultanate, chose Shi’ite as its state religion. And began to plant it with fire and sword all over Iran and the surrounding lands.
The Iranian Shi’a Safafid empire forcibly converted millions of Muslims to Shi’ism, particularly in Azerbaijan and the territories now recognised as Iraq. The Safavids engaged in decades of war with Muslims (represented by the Ottomans), eager to gain regional and religious supremacy before finally being subdued by force.
Abbasov argues that Aliyev, eager to align his country more closely with Turkey, the west and Israel, is engineering a demographic change in order to push Azerbaijan away from Iran’s orbit and its generally Shi’ite image. Aliyev’s family, he claims, is also keen to be seen as pro-western and secular (much as Mustafa Kemal was) and doesn’t want to be seen as synonymous with the Shi’a regime in Tehran:
In fact, this is the way to mutual identification of ourselves as a full-fledged part of the Sunni Turkic world and the final exit from the Iranian civilisational orbit, the authors of such forecasts conclude.
Moreover, the main carriers of Shi”ite religiosity in modern Azerbaijan are not the Azerbaijanis themselves, but the Iranian-speaking Talysh and Tats. Which, according to the logic of Baku, do not fit into the concept of Turkic Azerbaijan and are agents of the influence of theocratic Iran.
This analysis isn’t unfeasible. Around 60% of Azeris apparently identify as Shi’ite and 40% as Sunni (Muslim), a gap closing fast. This counts nominal “Muslims” and Shi’ites (e.g. those who call themselves Muslim or Shi’ite, but don’t actually believe in some or all of the religion, nor pray and fast etc) as well as practising Muslims and Shi’ites. That 40% has grown recently; I suspect in part that this could be due to at least a small portion of once-irreligious Azeris finding Islam and leaving Shi’ism.
Azerbaijan has largely been irreligious (a relic of the communist era) to the extent that many people there still 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 legacy of Atatürk, is seeking to gain Erdoğan’s favour by encouraging the face of Azerbaijan to be (culturally) Sunni.
Aliyev will, however, draw the line at people who actually believe in Islam in its entirety without selectively picking and choosing from the faith to fit his whims much as other tyrants do – they see Islam as a threat to their control, especially the fact that Islam preaches a rejection of man-made law and call for jihad against oppressors like him. Azerbaijan has imposed heavy sentences on those found to have fought against Assad in Syria.
Much could simply be down to Aliyev’s fear of Iranian influence, increasingly subversive. Iranian money and unauthorised weapons were apparently found after Shi’ites fought his police in Nardaran, an area known for Shi’a extremism.
Some, including Abbasov, put it down to Baku viewing 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, some say, he would probably prefer to see them sidelined.
Questions remain as to the validity of this theory, at least in part. The reality on the ground often tends to be different. Muslim 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.
Aliyev’s predecessor – his father, Haydar – was traditionally close to Iran, making trips to the Shi’a holy site of Qom and being careful not to antagonise Iran too much over the sizeable population of Azeri Shi’ites in Iran, always a traditional bone of contention. Even Heydar Aliyev, however, wanted to sack the Shi’a leader of the Muslims’ Department of Azerbaijan, Allahshukur Pashazadeh (who is Talysh by origin).
What’s clear is Azerbaijan’s slow but steady demographic shift. What’s unclear is if Aliev (a Shi’ite himself) is sincerely keen on it.