Baku, Azerbaijan

To Religion, Human Rights and Religious Freedom Program at Human Rights Center in Columbia University


As the first step before I begin to address the questions of the Centre of Human Rights and Religious Freedom, I would like to tell you briefly about the history of the religious issue in Azerbaijan, and this would clarify present situation with religion and religious freedoms in the country.

Today's religion of the majority in Azerbaijan - islam - began to spread here at the end of 7 century with the arrival of arabs. However the arab conquest and often violent propagation of Islam ran against the bitter resistance, which continued many decades and was surpressed in the middle of 9 century.

In the period of overall soviet atheism the former resisitance against islamilization by force was began to be considered as one of the glorious pages of Azeri history. However the popular joke remained since the period of Islam. If somebody wants to complain of lack of discipline and unwillingness to see self-benefit among Azeris, he says "what to be done - we are sword-muslims" (converted to true faith by force, or we can be only forced to do someting useful).

Thus, Azeris forcibly made happy by arabs more than thousand years have been living according Shari'a laws and Islam regulated all the aspects of the social life.

In 19 century after the conquest of Azerbaijan by Russia the europization and secularization in personal and social life began. With the establishment of the Soviet power in Azerbaijan (1920) the total "cultural revolution" began in the country. One of the main purposes of it was the struggle against religion. We were again forcibly "made happy" - this time we became "sword-atheists".

During 70 years of the Soviet power and violent secularization the significant part of the population completely lost the cult traditions. The culture of Gur'an and Sunna hermeneuticus, islamic law and philosophy was forgotten everywhere. That period religious agents as a rule were closely connected to KGB and it was well-known. It is possible to say that the Religious feeling remained, but Shari'a went out of the life of society. Religion pursued by communist state revealed itself most of all in traditions - births, weddings (but not divorces), funerals were carried out according to Islamic rules.

After the fall of the "iron curtain", breakdown of the USSR and and reistablishment of the independence by Azerbaijan the revival of the religiosity is observed in the country. At the beginning of 90s Gur'an was published in Azeri language for the first time (the translation by orientalist Nariman Gassimzadeh); a lot of religious literature appeared in the country; religious societies, schools were opened, new mosks were built. But, nevertheless, there was not mass return to religion and religious practice. The true religious feeling is observed usually among the few ones, and the reastablishment of the Shari'a in the society is nothing to speak about.

The nation admits Islamic religion as the necessary element of self- denification. The formula of national idea for Azerbaijan, proclaimed by national-democrats at the beginning of the century is often repeated here "Turkism, Modernism, Islam". In regard to the freedom of religion and worship in broad sense, this freedom takes up its place in the public conscience as fast as the other democratic values - i.e. not as fast as it is desirable. In this light there are the problems with the society as well as with Islam.


Human Rights

At present the situation with Human Rights in Azerbaijan is inspired with danger. In the annual reports of "Freedom House" about the situation with Human Rights in different countries in the world in 1994 and 1995, Azerebaijan is in the range of "Not Free Countries". The report notes existing of the political censorship on Mass Media, pursuing of the journalists, arrests among the democratic activists and mass violations on the parlamental elections (1995). There is the "veto on occupation" for the members of democratic parties and organizations.

The rights to freedom, self-expression, crossing the borders and others are not protected by the law, they are used eighter by the men that are close to government, or, to definite extent, by the activists of democratic organizations (gathered in "Democratic Congress") able to resist the willfullness of the government and getting the support of World Democratic Community at the same time. The ones, that don't join neighter one camp, nor the another, probably are to be subjected to any violation of their rights.

The Human Rights movement in Azerbaijan includes the non-governmental organizations of Human Rights protection, special sections of political parties on Human rights, some democrtically minded lawyers. The Human Rights are constant topic for free mass-nedia. The great assistance in protection of Human Rights is made by international Human Rights organizations (Amnesty International, Helsinky Watch, etc). The Embassies of democratic countries in Azerbaijan (especially USA and UK) actively protect the Human Rights, as well. I can safely say - there is the world community between democrats and death in Azerbaijan.

Human Rights and Religion.

Religious groups and religious ideas don't play an important role in efforts to eighter promoting or controling Human Rights, political freedoms or economic changes.

Religious leaders and religious activists take public positions on the issues of national interests and keeping the traditions, but not on the issues of democracy and Human Rights. There is nothing in the law, rule or customs that keeps them from doing so. Their passive role on the issues of Human Rights is linked to their misunderstanding of the superiority of Human Rights in relationships wiht the State and community.

From 1992 to the middle of 1996 the "Islamic Party" existed in Azerbaijan, however it was forbidden by the government on suspicion of espionage in favor of Iran, and all its leaders (about ten persons) were arrested and now are in prison.

At the same time several public organizations, which set themselves to modernize Islam, appeared in the country.

Treatment of Minorities

The minority groups in Azerbaijan are described in following terms:

By the decree of President Elchibey in 1992 all the ethnic minorities were conceded by the guarantees on keeping and development of their own language and culture. There are not legislative restrictions for religious minorities in their faith.

Religion/State Relationships

Azerbaijani Constitution (1995) separates the religion from the state and don't give advantages to any religion. However in the society the dominating religion is Islam of Shiah confession (65% of the Muslims in the country are Shiah and 35% - Sunni). The leader of Shiah community Sheikh-ul-Islam has not any influence on political events in the country and has only ceremonial functions. There was the cooling-off between all governments in Azerbaijan during 20 century and religious agents. Probably, it is the result of 70 years of the Soviet atheism.

Missionaries and New Religions

Since 1990 active missionary work of own Azerbaijani and foreign religious activists began. Iranian religious activists were the first among foreign ones to arrive to the country. According to the reports of Azeri mass-media Iranian government even assigned several ten millions dollars for the propagation of the ideas of Iranian revolution. These means were spent for the building of mosks and religious schools, religious training of Azeri youth in Iran, aid for poor religious men, publishing of the literature on modern Iran, support of pro-Iranic social forces, etc.

The next missionary wave began in 1992. These were missionaries-sunni from Turkey and the countries of Arab peninsula, which didn't posess such a great means as Iranian did.

Beginning from 1994 the missionaries from the West (Baptists), appeared in Azerbaijan and worked with great success. They converted into their confession not only christians, but even muslims. The conversion of the hundreds of muslims to christian faith strongly worried not only muslim traditionalists, but also influental nationalists, which saw in this event the undermining of national identity and security. And under the pressure of these forces the Parlament in the middle of 1996 passed the law, which forbid foreign missionaries to propagate their religion in Azerbaijan.. Besides, the same law commits all religious communities and mosks to register themselves in former Soviet and now being under state influence non-governmental structure - "Religious administration of Caucasus Muslims" which is governed by Shekh-ul-Islam.

Religion and Education

The religious education in Azerbaijan is private only and is available to those who wish to have it. Some State secondary schools and Universities can invite religious agents for delivering lectures on religion and the participation in these religious activities is by choice.


Since Azerbaijan society had gotten freedom from a dictate of communist ideology a faith has taken a respectable place, practically at once. But, soon we met with the serious problems here.

THE FIRST, society generally accepted only acknowledged cults and sects, all others were considered by public opinion as a heresy undermining national identity and security. In the other words, here is a weak understanding of conscience freedom in the br oad sense.

THE SECOND problems, for my viewpoint, are Islamic doctrines being excessively political, have claim not only on a regulating a spiritual sphere of man, but, in fact, oblige Moslems to follow political and juridical standards fixed in Islamic rules and tr aditions. And so, the religious people who accept Islam and its rules cannot do without a thinking about Islamic State.

THE THIRD and main problem for all democrats in Third World countries are perfectly reflected in the A.Tocquevilles "Democracy in America": successes of democracy is result of a fusing of two quite different principles which are a devotion to religion and spirit of freedom. In the same way somebody in Azerbaijan who wants to build Open and renewing society need to manage to unite religiousness with innovation, pluralism and liberalism...

THE MAIN PROBLEM OF CULT MODERNIZATION in new Azerbaijan is that during 70 years of the Soviet power and violent secularization the significant part of the population and completely lost the cult traditions. Also religious activists lost the culture of Ko ran and Sunna hermeneuticus, islamic law and philosophy were forgotten everywhere.


by Hikmet Hadjy-Zadeh

Used with exclusive permission from the author.
Copyright © 1996 by Hikmet Hadjy-zadeh.
Copyright © 1996 HTML Version by Virtual Azerbaijan Page.
All Rights Reserved.

Counter added 02/14/97