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Westminster in Azerbaijan

Westminster in Azerbaijan

By Anne Macdonald

East of Turkey, midst the tangled trails of the old Silk Road where merchants traveled with their camel trains for centuries, lies Azerbaijan. Here Professor of Political Science Chuck Tripp spent the summer of 2002 doing research in the capital, Baku a city where minarets grace the skyline. Yet, strangely, when the sun begins to set and the call to prayer can be heard, many of the mosques remain silent a remnant of communist rule.

In 1920, the Soviet Union annexed this Muslim land, declaring it an atheist state. During the seventy years until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan became increasingly bereft of religion and even spirituality.

"Under the Soviets, the mosques were used for warehouses, to house troops, or as museums, and even today some mosques remain that way," said Tripp. "Those who lived in the city couldn't go to the mosques without fear of losing their jobs or being harassed," he explained. However, in the rural areas where farming and livestock offered a meager living but no threat to position, the people kept Islam alive- people like Saida's grandfather.

Tripp's Azerbaijani wife, Saida, tells how her grandfather, a Mullah (prayer leader and healer), who knew much about herbs and healing, practiced his Islamic faith. At that time, the sheik of Azerbaijan (the country's main religious leader) worked for the KGB, and it wasn't too long before the government sent police, who arrested the Mullah and put him in the police car. Allah must have been with the Mullah that day, for the KGB's car wouldn't start. "The police saw it as a sign and let him go; they never bothered him again," explained Tripp.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijanis began to reclaim some mosques, many of which had been stripped of religious symbols during Soviet occupation. Yet today in the cities, though those born in Azerbaijan identify themselves as Muslims, only a small percentage actively practice their faith. Most mosques practice a form of Islam according to their sects, such as Shiite or Sunni, with one notable exception Friday Mosque in Old Town Baku. Here on Friday (the religious holiday of Islam) sometimes up to two thousand come to worship.

While networking Azerbaijani style (several interpreters in tow), Tripp visited Friday Mosque. To his surprise and delight, the head of the Mosque, Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, religious leader of the mosque and Coordinator of the Center for Protection of Conscience and Religious Freedom, granted Tripp an interview. There Tripp first heard of the efforts of the Imam to create a new Islam-one built on democratic principles that would be more appropriate for the modern world.

The Imam, a young man probably under 40, received a doctorate of theology from an Iranian University. Fluent in Azerbaijani, Farsi, and Russian, the Imam teaches the Koran in Arabic, which makes Azerbaijan's historical literature accessible to his followers.

"If you want to study the literature of Azerbaijan, you have to know the Cyrillic alphabet, the Latin alphabet, the Arabic alphabet, and the alphabet used by Farsi," said Tripp, pointing to the evidence of Azerbaijan's many conquerors over the centuries. The Arabs, the Persians, and the Russians all imposed their language on Azerbaijanis. So it is difficult for Azerbaijanis to get in touch with their past, explained Tripp.

The Imam described Friday Mosque as the largest and most independent mosque in Baku. "A sheik, who was with the KGB during Soviet rule, governs most of the country's mosques today, but not Friday Mosque," said Tripp.

In creating a set of beliefs to guide Friday Mosque to a more modern and tolerant version of Islam, Imam Ibrahimoglu points to separation of church and government, tolerance, the ethic of volunteerism, an anti-corruption campaign, and shared decision making among the worshippers at the mosque.

Eager to keep his mosque's independence from the Azerbaijan government, the Imam collaborates with Hikmet Hadjy-Zadeh, a scholar with a doctorate in science from a Russian university. Hadjy-Zadeh, a member of the Yeni Musavat (New Equality) political party, often writes and offers commentary on Azerbaijan's contemporary scene. He also served as a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York from 1996 to '97, where he participated in a human rights and religious freedom program examining the future of Islam.

Imam Ibrahimoglu and Mr. Hadjy-Zadeh are working together to develop what they describe as a tolerant religious philosophy.

In an interview with Tripp, Hadjy-Zadeh, who described himself as "not a particularly religious person," stressed that he and his associates want to create "religious freedom, not an Islamic state in Azerbaijan&People of all religious persuasions must be allowed to exist in a Muslim country," he told Tripp.

According to the Imam, everyone is welcome at Friday Mosque, whether Sunni, Shiite, Christian, or whatever. "We shouldn't be divided into sects," he told Tripp. "The Imam clearly wishes to see Islam return to its human rights roots as a religious movement that once again will offer the gifts of tolerance, equality, and acceptance to peoples around the world, as it did in its early years," said Tripp.

Yet according to Hadjy-Zadeh, the government represents "a constant irritation and threat" to Friday Mosque's project, labeling people involved as Muslim fundamentalists and terrorists. "The government can't control independent mosques, and social control is their goal, not democracy," Hadjy-Zadeh told Tripp.

Though Tripp expressed some concern about the safety of these two men should discussion of their movement upset the Azerbaijan government, he concluded, as did both Hadjy-Zadeh and Imam Ibrahimoglu, that expressing opinions and giving the movement international exposure are the best ways to assure their efforts will continue on. "The Azerbaijan government wants closer alliances with Western Europe as a hedge against Russia. It is always in their minds reconquest by Russia," said Tripp.

"To get that alliance, the Azerbaijan government has to demonstrate that it practices some democratic tolerance. This need in turn protects Azerbaijanis, such as those at Friday Mosque, who seek independence from their government's control structure," noted Tripp.

While in Azerbaijan, Chuck Tripp was interviewed by the largest newspaper Yeni Musavat, which means "New Equality." He also spoke with leaders of the three major political parties and did qualitative research with people from all walks of life. His research has so far resulted in two papers that he has submitted for publication: "Relax: Islam is Modernizing Itself in Azerbaijan" and "Perceptions of Foreign Corruption in Azerbaijan."

Each year faculty members may apply for a Gore Grant for faculty development and scholarly activity. Professor Chuck Tripp was one of the 2002 recipients. Gore Grants are supported by the Gore Excellence in Teaching Fund of the Bill and Vieve Gore Endowment.