Iran and Azerbaijan, Part 2
Last time, in our discussion of Iran and Azerbaijan, we covered a little bit of history and language ties between modern Iran and Azerbaijan. Today’s topic is a little more controversial, as we look at the historical religious ties and the current influence Iran exercises in Azerbaijan. The history stretches back hundreds of years and redraws many borders. What the relationship has become is a new drawing of the borders between Iran and Azerbaijan, a cultural crossing.
In the time that I’ve been living in Azerbaijan, I’ve observed that the relationship between these two countries is dictated by two things: natural resources and religion. Azerbaijan has all the gas Iran would ever need. Iran has it’s own pile of resources, but Azerbaijan is still a major contributor to Iran’s energy needs. Iran also is a major trade partner, in general, for Azerbaijan, as can be witnessed by the wealth of Iranian-produced goods that make their way to my apartment, like the bathroom mirror and my teapot. The Lənkəran bazaar is chock-full of Iranian produce, especially now in the winter. The economic ties are many, but the major relations here still focus on energy.
Energy relations are an issue that bring the Azerbaijani government closer to Iran’s government, but push the Azerbaijani people further away from both, as many Azeris see the trade of energy resources, like gas, as taking away from the Azeri people who are deprived of those resources. Religion, however, pushes the governments of these two countries further apart, amidst strong suspicions by the Azeri government, as the people of Azerbaijan are moving towards increased religiosity as they recover from their Soviet hangover.
Azerbaijan was first introduced to Islam in the 600s, by Arabs moving up through modern-day Iran along the Caspian Sea. While some practices were syncretized into the pagan, Zoroastrian, and Christian beliefs in the area, a real dominance of Islamic religiosity did not emerge until the middle of the 1500s. Prior to this, Azerbaijan had been overrun by Turkic Sunni empires, such as the Ottomans, or the Mongols or the many more empires rushing out of Central Asia. The Safavids, however, built what we currently understand as the Persian Empire into a Shi’a outfit and were of Azerbaijani Turkish descent, speaking Azeri Turkish as the court language of the time. As the Safavids became more and more Persian, the Azerbaijani territory became more intertwined in Persian culture, as opposed to the Ottoman and Dagestani cultures encroaching from the west and north. Still today, you can find a sizable proportion of Sunni-identifying Azeris in the north, in places close to Sunni Dagestan, such as Zaqatala and Qusar.
With the interruption of religiosity during the Soviet period, when a radical atheist agenda swept the Soviet Union, devotion to any particular creed had been severely weakened. Yet, as we near almost 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, religiosity is gaining ground, making up for the lost time of the Soviet period. While the times may have changed, the actors interested in influencing Azeri Islam haven’t. Still from the north, in Dagestan, Sunni influence attempts to push down; from their Turkish brothers on the Mediterranean, Azeris receive pressure in Baku; and in the southern regions, including Lənkəran, Iran is considered a significant player.
Many of the news items since this past December have had to do with the government of Azerbaijan making decisions about how much Islam can be shown in public life. There was the decision to ban the hijab from schools. And the arrest of prominent leaders associated with the banned Islamic Party of Azerbaijan. Recently, there have been public protests outside the Iranian embassy in Baku, as well as at Iranian embassies in other countries, purportedly for Iran’s strengthening ties with neighboring Armenia, accusing Iran of teaming up with the enemy of Muslims.
As Iran seeks to exert influence in this area of the world, Azerbaijan’s reaction is going to be one of suspicion. As demonstrated above, the government is not bashful about trying to control religiosity in Azerbaijan, due to their fear of increased radicalism and potential to undermine the state. They want to be sure that Azerbaijan remains a secular state (with current leaders in power), without provocations from Dagestani and Iranian actors disrupting security and, thus, economic ties. So where a freedom-loving citizen might see an oppressive state quashing free religious expression and political Islam, the Azerbaijani state probably sees it as their prerogative to keep religiosity out of the public sphere in order to protect international political and economic interests, without which the government would likely crumble.