Secularism and Islam: new religious education in Azerbaijan

ZOiS Spotlight 40/2019 by Tsypylma Darieva (30 October 2019)

State-sponsored Heydar Mosque in Baku, Azerbaijan. © Tsypylma Darieva

The Azerbaijani government plans to introduce mandatory religious education in school and university curriculums—an announcement that was met with scepticism in the country. Mübariz Qurbanli, the chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, announced that the proposed course would be an important instrument to give society better and more accurate information on religious life in modern Azerbaijan. Universities and secondary schools will be expected to teach the history and meaning of Islam as well as of Christianity and Judaism. The curriculum should be prepared by state-supported institutions such as the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations (Azərbaycan Respublikasi Dini Qurumlarla Iş üzre Dövlet Komitəsi), the Baku International Multicultural Centre (Bakı Beynəlxalq Multikulturalizm Mərkəz), and the Soviet-style Board of Caucasus Muslims (Qafqaz Muselmanlari Idaresi).

The aim of the move is to promote the state’s secular policy of multiculturalism without privileging Islam politically while countering radical and fundamentalist movements. The course is to be taught from modern and secular points of view. Approaches will include perspectives from life sciences, the European Enlightenment, Soviet-style atheism, and theories of the big bang. The curriculum will also incorporate Muslim and Christian eschatological explanations and explore the views and propaganda of radical religious movements. However, the first draft textbook stoked controversy in spring 2019, as many parents considered it a government imposition of religious propaganda on their children.

A restrictive policy

Usually identified on the basis of ethnicity, most of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim, with a considerable majority of Shia Muslims. Although only about 5 per cent of the population is non-Muslim, the Azerbaijani state increasingly emphasises its multi-religious and multi-ethnic background to counter religious activism originating from below. The government has heavily intensified its control over religious life through restrictive practices, suppressing and even criminalising Muslim religious practices in public spaces as a threat from abroad, in particular from neighbouring Iran.

According to Azerbaijani elites, Islam should be maintained as a local cultural feature, rather than a social component of human identity. More precisely, cultural Islam is part of a heritage and ‘tradition’ orchestrated by the state. It should therefore be expressed as an individual choice limited to private rituals, marriage and burial ceremonies, visits to shrines, and the veneration of local saints. From 2006 to 2008, the Azerbaijani authorities cancelled a number of Islamic television programmes. In 2010, a ban was introduced on wearing a hijab in public institutions and schools. This was followed by the creation of a list of religious literature that was prohibited for the purposes of import, production, sale, or distribution without the authorisation of the state religious committee.

Further, Azerbaijan amended its law on religious freedom in 2015 and 2017. Strict re-registration requirements and bureaucratic procedures have become instruments of state control over religious groups. By presidential decree, religious symbols, slogans, and public ceremonies are permitted only inside places of worship. Performing the traditional Ashura mourning ritual outside mosque courtyards is therefore now prohibited in Azerbaijan. The same applies to Christian Orthodox processions around churches at Easter.

Challenges

Over the last decade, Azerbaijan’s elites have perceived Islam as a political challenge that forces the state to intervene and create a new secular Islam, for instance through state-sponsored mosques that balance society between East and West. However, Altay Goyushov, head of the Baku Research Institute, expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of such an approach, comparing recent state-sponsored efforts with Soviet attempts to control religious ideology that did not eradicate ‘underground Islam’. Schoolteachers and university lecturers complain about the lack of professionally written textbooks that teach a balanced level of religious knowledge in the context of a multicultural society.

The Azerbaijani government faces two serious challenges: first, to regulate curriculum content suitable for different religious trends; and second, to find skilled teachers trained in questions of religious diversity. Religiously marked lifestyles in Baku seem to be growing and form a visible part of urban lifestyles embodied by perfume, cosmetic boutiques, halal restaurants, hijab fashion, and agencies offering pilgrimage tours to Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Given Azerbaijan’s authoritarian desire to create its own version of ‘proper’ religion, the state is likely to view society’s grass-roots religiosity as ‘unproper’ and label it a non-traditional, foreign influence. The introduction of mandatory religious education is an expression of Azerbaijan’s doctrine of strengthening secularism by playing down religion as a marker of national identity.


Tsypylma Darieva is social anthropologist and a senior researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS), where she co-develops the research area 'Migration and Transnationalism'.