BAKU – Azerbaijan’s Muslims are decrying government restrictions on the publication and distribution of religious materials, a move seen as an attempt by authorities to curtail the growing influence of religious groups in the country.
“We need literature just like anyone else,” Faiq Mustafa of the Lezgi mosque in the capital Baku, told The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).“We need it even more, in fact, because Islam is such a complicated science.
“Unlike the stereotypical view that we gather in the mosque for a chat, we have to read a great deal to be aware of the Islamic rules for marriage, property, income, and so on.”
The Azeri government has imposed restrictions on the publication of religious materials.
In December 2011, the Azeri parliament introduced legislative amendments to restrict the distribution of religious materials.
The amendments made it a criminal act to import, publish or distribute religious material that has not been approved by a government committee for religious organizations.
Last month, the parliament added that all such items – audio and video material as well as literature – must carry an official stamp of approval, and confines their sale to government-designated retail outlets.
“Religious literature is at the core of our community’s development,” said Mustafa.
Like much of the ex-Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has witnessed a limited religious revival since independence in 1991.
The government of President Ilham Aliyev has been facing accusations of tightening controls on the Muslim religion in the country.
In mid-February 2010, the government ordered all state employees to remove Islam-related symbols -– like Qur’anic verses -- from their offices.
The state also requires all religious communities to register with the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations.
The government also mandates that all religious groups align their teachings with the spiritual authority of the Caucasus Board of Muslims (CBM), a state-backed board of scholars which controls mosques in the country.
Analysts opine that the restrictions show government concerns about the growing influence of religious groups in the Shiite-majority country.
“Azerbaijan has a new generation of believers who are very active,” Altay Goyushov, a historian of religion from Baku State University, said.
The restrictions were also seen as a government reaction to accusations of mismanagement and corruption from Muslim figures.
In 2011, Movsum Samadov, head of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, was arrested after comparing President Aliyev to one of the most hated figures in the Shiite tradition.
“The government wants to control them and those [foreign] influences. It wants to make Islam something it owns and control,” Goyushov said.
Such government worries were reflected in the growing cases, documented by international human rights organizations, where Salafis have been harassed.
The authorities, however, were unhappy that Salafis tend to avoid registering with the official body that governs Azerbaijan’s Muslims, both Shiite and Sunni.
“It isn’t a fashion or something to be singled out; it’s an essential part of our faith,” Emil Jafarli, 34, who studied at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, said.“It is absurd to isolate us because of the way we look, or to enforce rules to ban it. It would be a kind of violation.”
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