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Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan Sorts Out Democratic, Islamic Political Influences

WHILE the future of democratization may be in limbo in Azerbaijan, officials insist Islamic fundamentalism will not be a factor in the republic's political development.While Baku, the capital, has a very definite Arabic flavor, residents maintain a secular look. Women are not seen wearing veils as they walk around the city and only a few people say they can read Arabic script. "There's no danger of Islamic fundamentalism in Azerbaijan," said Tamerlan Hamidov, a leader of the Popular Front, the republic's main opposition political group. "We love Islam," Mr. Hamidov continues, "But Islam can be one method to impose totalitarianism, and the Popular Front wants democracy for the people of Azerbaijan." Azerbaijan's President, Ayaz Mutalibov, has done nothing to encourage the fundamentalists, said aide Vafa Goulizade. President Mutalibov, however, has gained the support of Islamic clerics in Baku by lifting some controls over religious worship. "Our opponents charge us with whipping up Islamic fundamentalism, but this is crazy," Mr. Goulizade says. "Baku has about two mosques for 2 million people." Nevertheless, at least one of the working mosques in Baku appears to be a hotbed of fundamentalism, where both deceased Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini and Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein are regarded as heroes. "He's the only leader of Islam in the 20th Century," Haji Abdul Vadi, a cleric at the Hachit Tobeh Mosque in central Baku, said of Khomeini. Portraits of Khomeini, as well as an Iranian flag, are displayed prominently in Abdul Vadi's office. The cleric is one of the leaders of the Tobeh Society in Azerbaijan, an organization trying to spread belief in fundamentalist Islamic values. Abdul Vadi claims the organization has 500,00 followers in Baku alone. He says several hundred thousand Azerbaijanis were willing to fight on Iraq's the side during the Gulf war, pointing with pride to a story in the Moscow weekly Ogonyok published in January. "While Iraq is in the vanguard of the Palestinian problem, its position must be supported," he said in the article.

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