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Opinion | First they came for the Muslims, and we did not speak out…

16 May 2023
Mehriban and Ilham Aliyev at the mosque in Baku.

The mass arrest of religious Muslims in Azerbaijan is part of a blatant state campaign to control religion and demonise Iran. As such, the deafening silence among Azerbaijani activists and the international community is nothing short of a disgrace.

On 7 April, I attended the trial of Nijat Aliyev, a member of the Muslim Union Movement. 

Except for a handful of social activists, I could see no one else in the courtroom except for Nijat’s relatives — the sight of whom hurt my heart.

While we have many differences of opinion, and although I often criticise them, I have never wished to see Azerbaijan’s religious Shia community end up in such a situation. 

Imagine an executioner (the judge) being appointed to decide your fate. But as you try to reason with him, he only sharpens his sword to strike your neck. Such was Nijat’s situation.

Nijat knew well that what had happened to him was nothing but a show. But still he had to listen to the judge. The judge also heard out Nijat, as if he was listening with interest and would be impartial. 

But the stories of the pressure exerted on him, the insults and threats he endured, and how drugs were planted on him in the police station did not move the judge. He had clearly already made his decision, but in order to extend this play a little longer, he set the date for the next hearing for 21 April. Then, since 21 April coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the judge changed the date to 28 April.

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The fact that the trial of a religious person coincided with Ramadan made me laugh, but the real laugh was hearing the call to prayer on the phone of one of the participants as they left the hall.

Standing alone, Azerbaijan’s Shia community was all too aware of what would likely await them. This is not the first roundup of believers. Still, the scale of this round of repression, with, by my estimates, more than 500 people arrested in a week, makes the indifference towards it even more shocking.

The State religion

The Azerbaijani government has an official policy of tolerance towards religion. But there are many examples of how this tolerance extends only as far as the state can control religious belief, with anything falling outside of that control under threat.

For example, let’s look at 2 March. On 2 March, a well-known theologian, Haji Sahin, and a member of the Azerbaijan Islamic Party, Sabuhi Salimov, both passed away. 

Haji Sahin died of heart failure, and Sabuhi Salimov due to hunger — dropping dead in the courtroom after being on a hunger strike in prison for more than 50 days. 

Both were prominent Shia believers. 

Haji Sahin was best known as a propagandist of the government; he was someone who supported the state, influenced society on critical issues, and organised people. For Haji Sahin the conditions were created for a lavish funeral without any hindrances.

The opposite was true for Sabuhi Salimov, whose funeral took place quietly and in secret. When I spoke with Salimov’s relatives, they told me they could not find a cemetery to bury him. Later, the detention of people who attended that funeral was the beginning of the next wave of arrests by the government.

Spies or drug pushers?

Regarding those detained, two different pieces of information are being circulated in pro-government media. 

First, they said that they were ‘spies’ with connections to Iran, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the State Security Service were cited as references. While the authorities did not officially name who was rounded up in their ‘special operation’ against the organisers of a supposed Iranian coup, the media did, along with their images.

Some of these ‘Iranian spies’ named by the media were in fact charged with drug offences. This is a common tool for the authorities; if they want to send you to prison for a day, they cite ‘resisting the police’, but if they want long-term imprisonment, they use drug charges.

The latest wave of detentions began after an assassination attempt on MP Fazil Mustafa.

Ilkin Suleymanov, one of those accused of shooting Mustafa, was initially charged with armed attack and espionage. The charges against him were changed after Meydan TV interviewed his family and shared CCTV footage proving that he was not there at the time of the incident, but he was still not released.

Then the story changed; it was said that Suleymanov was detained by the police with drugs. 

I cannot say by whom the conspiracy against Fazil Mustafa was planned, but it is not difficult to say that the only ones to benefit are the Azerbaijani authorities.

The imprisoned are religious, and the imprisoned are the state.

Another interesting aspect of the attempted assassination of Fazil Mustafa was the state’s sensitivity to it. 

In the days that followed, the State Security Service summoned many of those who posted negatively about him, who were suspicious of the incident, or who ridiculed the authorities over what happened to demand an explanation. 

One of those summoned told me that the official who questioned him had social media posts by so many others printed out and sitting on his desk. They threatened him and told him they knew everything. I was both surprised and not surprised, because this is Azerbaijan.

An appeal to nationalism and ‘Greater Azerbaijan’

Another aspect of the Government’s position on Iran is an appeal to the nationalists. 

Although the propaganda of ‘South Azerbaijan’ — a reference to areas of northern Iran populated by ethnic Azeris — is not openly voiced by the state, it is done so by those speaking the ‘language of the state’. These views are now widely voiced by state TV channels, MPs, and other officials. 

One of the reasons for such talk is to rally further domestic support against Iran. The government understands it cannot do much with the accusations of ‘spying’ alone, and thus tries to attract nationalists to its cause with talk of ‘South Azerbaijan’.

If there were a conflict with Iran in some form, the government wishes to be able to dress it up as a ‘just struggle’ and convince the public that this struggle is not in vain and that the result will be ‘Greater Azerbaijan’. 

It’s also noteworthy that the rhetoric used focuses on the ‘Persian-mullah regime’. This is because no one wants to admit that war with Iran would also mean war with the Azerbaijanis who live there — that the Iranian state would mobilise Azri–Iranians to fight. The government instead dresses the other side in the garb of the ‘Persian mullah’, so as to minimise this line of reasoning. 

Another means to portray Iran as ‘anti-Azerbaijani’ is to equate it with Armenia. 

These attempts to discredit Iran in society are meant to prove to people that the state-government tandem is right. 

The modern-day Stalinists

The fact that the public is not interested in the persecution of religious people does not mean that there is no interest in the subject in general. 

I was surprised that a tweet I wrote about the roundup got more reactions than I expected. In addition to planned troll attacks, I saw serious people supporting and justifying these arrests. People’s hatred of Iran, or hatred of Islam, gives them a reason to consider these arrests to be justified.

The people justifying the arrests believe those people want the country to be ruled under Sharia law, and so should be punished. 

But the Constitution of Azerbaijan allows people to hold such beliefs. 

Apart from ignoring this, it seemed even more strange that they ignored the political authoritarianism in Azerbaijan. 

And people expressing these opinions are not only ordinary citizens, but those who are politically active; those who have themselves been detained by the police, and even those who have spent time in prison. 

They see and know all aspects of this government, so why would they support it?

As with the clashes with Armenia, they are now following another arm of the propaganda of the state, and they cannot hide the feelings of nationalism inside them. 

When I saw the reactions to the people detained on charges of spying for Iran, I realised that people have as much hatred for Iran as they do for Armenia, even though we have not experienced war with Iran.

And this turning away from the plight of believers is not only a domestic affair.

I am disgusted to see so many international and Western organisations — individuals engaged in human rights protection — remain silent and indifferent to these arrests. 

This is a clear double standard. 

A person’s religious belief or political ideology should not be grounds for arresting them. 

It is unacceptable for the police to violently abduct people from the road and arrest them on various made-up grounds. In one video I saw on social media, plainclothes police officers stopped a car on the road and arrested a religious man sitting behind the wheel in front of his baby. Should we expect that child to grow up and trust the state, or trust the law and the police?

In Azerbaijan today, whether it is aimed at the political opposition or religious believers, there is only one name for such mass detentions and imprisonments — repression.

There is nothing to defend this event, but as far as I can see, people are ignoring it and even justifying it because of their personal biases and agendas, something which reminds me of Stalin’s repressions in 1937. 

In 1937, the Soviet government arrested, sent to exile, or executed thousands of those it considered to be opponents.

Undoubtedly, there were those who justified this repression at that time, those who were part of it. 

Today, we see some of those who condemn those events support similar things here and now. They do not understand that if they had lived in the times of the Soviet purges, they would have been among those justifying the actions of state and applauding the deaths of certain ‘undesirables’ — because their logic is the same. 

Because nothing should be more important than human life. 

Therefore, some of those who curse Stalin today should look in the mirror and understand, they were also Stalin’s followers.

Read in Armenian on CivilNet