Iran General NewsAzerbaijan protests prompt fears of Iranian influence

Azerbaijan protests prompt fears of Iranian influence


New York Times: An article seen as denigrating Islam published early last month in an obscure Baku newspaper prompted demonstrations across Azerbaijan and in Iran, raising Azeris’ concerns over Iran’s influence here. The New York Times

Published: December 24, 2006

BAKU, Azerbaijan, Dec. 23 — An article seen as denigrating Islam published early last month in an obscure Baku newspaper prompted demonstrations across Azerbaijan and in Iran, raising Azeris’ concerns over Iran’s influence here.

The article blamed Islam for Azerbaijan’s meager economic development.

The furor after its publication echoes the case of the Danish cartoons published in 2005 that were seen as mocking Islam, generating protests from Gaza to Pakistan. An Iranian cleric demanded the death of the two authors, and denunciations from village imams and other religious conservatives in Azerbaijan have sent tremors through the Azeri government and the secular elite of this Shiite nation.

“I am for freedom of speech but not the freedom to insult,” said Hajji Ilgar, an imam at Baku’s Jama Old City mosque who is often critical of the government of Azerbaijan’s secular president, Ilham Aliyev. “The only solution is to take this to the courts.”

The authors, Rafiq Tagi and Samir Sadagatoglu, who are Muslim, are to face criminal charges of inciting religious enmity; a court ruled on Nov. 15 that the pair could be held in pretrial detention for two months. The journalists were given legal representation for the first time on Dec. 20. They could not be interviewed.

In the six weeks since the article was published, Iran’s interventions in Azerbaijan have become the focus of public debate among civic and religious leaders in Baku, with many Azeris openly suspecting Iran of undermining its secularity and stability by fomenting Islamic extremism.

A group of 40 leading public intellectuals has released an open letter calling for Iran to stop encouraging religious extremists in Azerbaijan and for the Iranian cleric, Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani, to rescind his fatwa, or religious decree, against the authors.

The neighbors have had an often prickly relationship since the Soviet Union disintegrated and Azerbaijan became independent in 1991. Iran is the regional power, and Azerbaijan is an up-and-coming oil state, tucked next to Russia on the Caspian Sea.

More than a third of Iran’s 66 million people are ethnically Azeri, a beleaguered minority that frequently agitates for more rights and cultural autonomy. A cartoon ridiculing ethnic Azeris by portraying them as cockroaches published earlier in the year in a Tehran newspaper drew protests in northern Iran. A secular and prosperous Azerbaijan could embolden them further.

Elchin Shikhlinsky, the editor of Zerkalo, or The Mirror, one of the largest Baku dailies, said that the furor over the recent article was “crazy, and if such an article had been published a couple of years ago there would have been no reaction to it.”

“But,” he said, “step by step, day by day, people are becoming more religious. Iran is spending a lot of money along the border to produce these kinds of fanatics.”

Iran already has some sway in Azerbaijan. As it does in Lebanon and elsewhere, Iran has lavished social assistance programs on Azerbaijan, especially in the bleak countryside. A new Iranian friendship center in Baku bestows money, books and even furniture to young couples moving into their first homes.

“Azeri success is not in Iran’s national interest,” said Ilgar Mammadov, a political analyst at the Baku Political Research and Advocacy Institute. “Iranians want mullahs to be the reference point for any intellectual thought in this country.”

Rallies protesting the article and the little-known newspaper that published it, Sanat, have been staged in small towns across Azerbaijan, many centered in the village of Nardaran, home to a famous holy site. In response, free speech advocates came together on Nov. 20 to denounce the demonstrations.

The journalist advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders called the fatwa against the two authors “deeply shocking and completely unacceptable.”

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