Last Updated: Friday, 19 September 2014, 13:55 GMT

Azerbaijan: Protesting for the Prophet, not for political change

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Mina Muradova and Rufat Abbasov
Publication Date 17 February 2006
Cite as EurasiaNet, Azerbaijan: Protesting for the Prophet, not for political change, 17 February 2006, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/46f25892c.html [accessed 20 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Mina Muradova and Rufat Abbasov 2/17/06

Recent mass protests in Baku against Danish newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed reflect the changing role of Islam in Azerbaijani public life, local analysts say.

The largest of the protests took place on February 9, when about 1,000 young people took to the center of Baku to chant religious slogans and then marched toward the French embassy to submit a note expressing their grievances about the republication of the cartoon by French media. The demonstration took place on Ashura, the day Shiites commemorate the 7th century slaying of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, Imam Hussein.

Protests, often violent, have taken place in recent weeks in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan and Indonesia against the caricatures, some of which depict the Prophet Mohammad as a terrorist. Muslims believe that any attempt at depicting Mohammad is an insult to Allah, or god.

On February 7, residents of Nardaran, a Baku suburb known as a bastion of conservative religious values, set fire to the Danish flag and demanded a boycott of Danish products in response to the cartoons, which have been republished in various European media. That same day, a crowd of some 100 young demonstrators with banners, shouting slogans in Arabic, had taken to Fuzuli Square in downtown Baku before being dispersed by police.

The Baku mayor's office later refused to allow members of the Jumah mosque community, a group often at odds with authorities in the past, to hold a larger demonstration on February 11 on Galaba Square, the site of massive opposition protests following the November 2005 parliamentary elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

That refusal has fueled speculation that the government sees the potential for a political backlash from such demonstrations. But Jumah leader Ilgar Ibragimoglu denied that the protests have any political motivation. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "It is rubbish that active religious youth can become a potential social base for the opposition," Ibragimoglu said. "These protests should not be politicized because there are no political motives." The Jumah community has since filed a lawsuit against the city government for violating their right to free assembly.

The Islamic Party of Azerbaijan itself also denies that it plans to use the protests for political purposes. The party, which lost its registration in 1995 amidst charges of spying for Iran, took part in opposition demonstrations against the parliamentary election results after seeing several of its candidates for parliament barred as alleged "religious figures" from running for office. Party representatives claim that the group supports creation of a democratic civil society, and includes "Islamic" in its title only to encourage respect among Azerbaijanis "as true Muslims." [See the Azerbaijan: Elections 2005 site].

"Although, we sense some passivity in our activities, we do not want to compensate for this by attracting young religious people," party spokesperson Gurban Jabravil commented about the protests. "We are not planning to use the situation in order to expand our social base as we have enough members." Jabravil declined to give a figure for party membership, but other Islamic Party officials have previously put the number at roughly 10,000. [See the Azerbaijan: Elections 2005 site].

Political analyst Rasim Musabekov also sees little chance that the party could use the youth protestors as a springboard for increased influence. "Our Islamic party has a pro-Iranian orientation, whereas the majority of these young religious people adhere to a pro-Turkish course. Most of the young people are well-educated and their religiosity does not correspond to the political purposes of the Islamic party," he said.

However, one analyst at the Institute of Peace and Democracy says that an opinion survey conducted by the Institute as part of an ongoing research project indicates that frustrations over the outcome and conduct of the parliamentary elections could encourage a growing number of young Azerbaijanis to look to Islam as an alternative to democratic reforms.

"These protests are evidence of growing anti-Western sentiments and the increasing political influence of Islam," argued Arif Yunusov, a conflict expert and author of "Islam in Azerbaijan."

"But the majority of them do not like the Iranian course and prefer the Turkish way of liberal Islam," Yunusov added. "There is still time to change the situation because they do not have a strong leader and do not yet play a powerful role in the political life of the country."

In explaining their actions, protest participants concentrate more on respect for Islam than political goals. "We are demonstrating our anger and hatred for the actions against Islam in Europe. European newspapers ... should stop publishing Mohammad's cartoons. We respect Jesus and they also should respect our prophet," commented Mirshain Agayev, one of the organizers of the February 9 protest.

Both the government and religious authorities responded quickly with calls for calm in an apparent bid to contain the protests. On February 7, the ministry of foreign affairs stated that Azerbaijan, as a secular state, "condemns these cases [publications of the cartoons] as they hurt the feelings of people and represent disrespect for religion," but added that the country "always supports and encourages dialogue between religions." The Board of Muslims of the Caucasus urged Azerbaijani Muslims to avoid any radical actions and to demonstrate "loyalty to the high moral values of Islam."

In rejecting the Jumah mosque community's bid for another protest at Gabala Square, the Baku city government argued that the government and Board of Muslims of the Caucasus had already expressed Azerbaijan's position on the cartoons.

"Our response to this provocation [the cartoons] and activities by representatives of some countries that are teaching us democracy should be sensible and cultured," Parliamentary Speaker Oktai Asadov commented in February 7 remarks to ANS TV about the Baku protests. "We should prove once again that we are more cultured, educated and tolerant than them."

Editor's Note: Rufat Abbasov and Mina Muradova are freelance journalists based in Baku.

Copyright notice: All EurasiaNet material © Open Society Institute

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