Saudi Arabia is so desperate to enlist new foot soldiers in its fight against Iran that it is resorting to journalistic fraud to make its case. Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned news network, recently published a piece wondering whether “Iran will turn Azerbaijan into another Iraq” by manipulating Shiite Muslims in Azerbaijan the same way it allegedly did in the Iraqi state.
Most of the article, penned by Huda al-Husseini, who is described by al-Arabiya’s website only as a “geopolitical writer on Middle East,” is primarily a loose copy-and-paste job of an article published in late December 2017 by EurasiaNet.org, a prime source of news and analyses on the South Caucasus and Central Asia. The original article was written by Zaur Shiriyev, an associate analyst at Chatham House. Al-Husseini plagiarizes or paraphrases large chunks of Shiriyev’s analysis, only to then supplement it with alarmist stories about Iranian influence in Iraq.
Azerbaijan, al-Husseini warns, is next in line to be swallowed by the insatiable Persian Shiite monster gobbling up weaker nations in the region. She seems particularly distressed that Iran is exporting “its religious habits and rituals” to Azerbaijan, namely Ashura processions mourning the death of Imam Hussein, slain in 7th century in the battle of Karbala in modern-day Iraq. These activities, she argues, are directed at subverting secular Azerbaijani society, to make it susceptible to Iranian religious and political expansionism.
Al-Husseini’s hand-wringing is, of course, utter nonsense. Iran’s cultural and religious practices have influenced and been influenced by its neighbors for millennia. From a geographic perspective, it is almost impossible to disentangle Azerbaijan from Iran, as most of the Azerbaijani republic’s territory was under different forms of Iranian suzerainty for centuries. Many ethnic Azeris currently live in Iran and consider it as much their nation as do ethnic Persians.
Azerbaijan has been religiously linked to Iran since the time Zoroastrianism was practiced throughout the region. To this day, one of Azerbaijan’s most heralded landmarks is the Fire Temple of Ateshgah on the outskirts of Baku, the nation’s capital. Azerbaijanis, just like Iranians, embraced Shiite Islam in the 7th century. Shiism was made the state religion in Iran in the 15th century by the Azeri Safavid dynasty. Even after the Treaties of Golestan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828) established new borders between the Russian and Persian empires, Iran remained a major cultural and religious influence on Azerbaijani Muslims living under Russian rule for the next hundred years.
When Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijani Shiites continued to observe Ashura, even though Bolshevik authorities frowned upon the practice and occasionally persecuted those who engaged in it. After Azerbaijan gained its independence in 1991, Ashura became popular again, a manifestation of historical continuity rather than an Iran-induced anomaly.
The fact that even more people seem to be participating in Ashura processions these days has complex explanations. Though missing from al-Husseini’s knock-off article in Al-Arabiya (as well as from the original piece in EurasiaNet), roughly 85 percent of Azerbaijan’s population is Shia. Many of these individuals have undoubtedly been influenced by the broader religious revival taking place in the Muslim world, which Azerbaijan has reconnected with after seven decades of Soviet rule. Religion has also had a growing appeal in Azeri society where political dissent is systematically repressed by the autocratic regime.
Whatever the cause, to claim, as al-Husseini does, that the growing popularity of religion in Azerbaijan is due solely to devious Iranian machinations is to ignore reality in favor of alarmism. Such distortions serve a clear political agenda: the Saudi desire to drive a wedgebetween Iran and Azerbaijan and enlist the latter in the ongoing American, Israeli, and Saudi-led effort to isolate the Iranian state.
Bordering Iran from the north, and with a large ethnic Azeri minority in Iran, Azerbaijan is an attractive target for membership in this anti-Iranian coalition. There is also an audience in Baku receptive to joining these efforts. Staunchly secularist in orientation, post-Soviet Azerbaijani elites are hostile to Iran. Seeing Shiism as a symbol of backwardness, unsuitable for a modern state, they have tried to model Azerbaijan on Kemalist secularism. That brand of secularism is, however, in retreat in Turkey, where it originated. Indeed, Ankara’s current Islamist rulers often find themselves on the same page as Tehran. Seeing an opening, Saudi Arabia has sought to position itself as Baku’s new ally, using the pretend “secularization” spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as a bridge joining the two states. The Saudis are also using financial incentives to lure Azerbaijan into their orbit.
Still, the “othering” of Shiism in Azerbaijan is fraught with risks. In a country where credible sociological surveys are unavailable, it is hard to gauge the extent to which this project is solely elite-driven or enjoys genuine grassroots support. An open, inclusive debate on Azerbaijani identity could help produce a more realistic picture, but in Azerbaijan’s closed political system, this is unlikely to happen.
Even in the absence of such debate, however, Shiism is undoubtedly gaining greater popularity in Azerbaijan, as result of the country’s own cultural, historical, and demographic realities. Indeed, it is not Shiism, but Saudi-promoted Salafism that has no roots in Azerbaijan. It was virtually unknown in the country before the 1990s, when missionaries from the oil-rich Gulf monarchies and Russian North Caucasus (Daghestan and Chechnya) began setting up shop in Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani state and its society must resist the siren songs of those who pretend to be concerned with safeguarding secularism in Azerbaijan, all while pursuing their own geopolitical agendas.