BRUSSELS, December 2, 2013 – As the sectarian civil war continues apace in Syria, the conflict threatens to affect one of the region’s few bastions of secularism, the small country of Azerbaijan.
Regardless of the initial reasons for the conflict, Syria is now suffering a civil war with heavy religious overtones.
Syria, a country that has hosted multiple religious and ethnic communities for centuries, is dominated by Sunni Muslims, which make up approximately 60% of the population. Political and economic power, on the other hand, has consistently been concentrated in the hands of Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam to which President Bashar al-Assad and his family adhere. As is in the interest of any member of a minority religious group, Assad fiercely defended Syria’s secularism in his country’s more peaceful days, ensuring the Sunni majority did not infringe on the rights of Shiites, Jews, or Christians.
Since the 2011 uprising, and the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on any form of protest, the Syrian ‘revolution’ has taken a turn for the worse, morphing into a sectarian civil war. On one side, there is Assad and his Alawite allies, determined to defend their position and fight off what they see as fundamentalist militants or “terrorists”. Other religious minorities, particularly the country’s Christians, who make up 10% of the population, have at least tacitly supported the government over fears that a Sunni administration would lead to an increase in persecution.
On the other side are the anti-government militants, mostly Sunni Muslims, some doubtless more extreme than others in their tactics and objectives. Though the exact proportion of the Syrian opposition that has been radicalized remains unclear, it has been shown that this proportion is increasing as the civil war persists, with jihad groups arriving from neighboring countries.
Azerbaijan: The next battleground?
Azerbaijan is a country of 9 million that sits on the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Demographically speaking, Azerbaijan is a melting pot. While 93% of the population identify as Muslims, this category further breaks down into significant Shia and Sunni populations. According to a 2009 Pew Research report, the overwhelmingly majority of the Azerbaijan population identify as Shia Muslims (65-75%) while 15% identify as Sunnis. The country also hosts Christian and Jewish minorities.
As in pre-war Syria, the Azerbaijan regime has forcefully maintained its secular nature, often taking preventative, albeit sometimes authoritarian, action to counter religious extremism.
However, as the sectarian nature of the Syria conflict has become increasingly well defined, fears are emerging that the civil war will tear Azerbaijan’s carefully guarded secular society apart. Unlike other Shia-majority countries, such as Iran, Azerbaijan has remained staunchly neutral throughout the Syria conflict. Officials in the capital, Baku, have repeatedly reproached Assad’s regime for its heavy-handedness against the opposition yet has also avoided openly supporting the Syrian rebels.
Prominent religious activists in Azerbaijan, on the other hand, have already begun to come out strongly in favor of certain sides. Shia leaders such as Hadji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu and Elshan Guliev, both influential voices in Azerbaijan, have denounced opposition to the Assad regime as a plot orchestrated by the United States and Israel designed to weaken Iranian influence in the region. Meanwhile, it is estimated that at least 200 Sunni ‘jihadists’ have travelled from Azerbaijan to Syria to combat Assad’s regime.
When speaking on the religious and ethnic diversity of his country, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has often stated that one is presented with the zero-sum choice between secular peace and sectarian chaos.
While critics have argued that there is a middle road between the two is possible, there is no doubt that the ethnic and religious character of Syria’s ongoing crisis makes Azerbaijan’s current situation seem pretty black and white.
December 4, 2013
Editors Note: The following notice was received from Mr. Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu in response to hte above article:
“I consider [it] necessary to note that my thoughts and views were delivered incorrect and my position is not reflected at all. My position is:
“Asad is a leader of authoritarian regime, but not like it represented in public view by opposition. There are some ones who want to see normal changes, but they are minorities. The majority is military alignments and as a matter of fact these military alignments are more radical, regressive and have destructive essence. I mean, the big part of opposition is radical groups are supported by foreign powers, especially by Israel regime, and financed by Arab dictatorship”. My position is, “There is no any positive process toward democratic changes in Syria, but we see firm intention to bring chaos and separate the country, to take radical groups to power and create one more “Taliban” regime”. Certainly, I am very concerned about it, and what I really would like to see there, it is democratic process that will ensure the people’s right of freedom of expression. also strongly condemn the attempts to bring “Taliban” nature groups to power by means of imitation of democratic movement, implementing systematic disinformation policy and hiding the real intention of those military groups.
Please also note that this is our firm and unchanged position over the Syria crisis, and only this position has been delivered to any mass media. Hence any different statement expressed on our behalf does not reflect the truth.
Using the right to express my position I would like to ask you to publish this statement.
Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu
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