Despite Azerbaijan being a Shia Muslim majority country, the current government under President Ilham Aliyev regularly and aggressively enforces secularism on the population.
Such measures have led to Azerbaijanis being prevented from studying in foreign Shia seminaries (hawza), women discouraged and forbidden from Islamic veiling, and annual Ashura commemorations often restricted, and in some cases, banned altogether.
After gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, many new political parties emerged in Azerbaijan, one of these the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA). In 1996, however, the party was banned as it called for the implementation of Sharia law, and its leader Haji Alikram was imprisoned and accused of “spying for Iran.”
This set-back didn’t mark the end of Islamist activism, as in September 2010, citing newly adopted school uniform standards, the authorities banned the wearing of hijab in schools. This action catalyzed a new wave of Islamic political activism, with “Free the Hijab” demonstrations taking place from 2010-2012. The protests ended with serious clashes between the protesters and police; some participants received long prison sentences.
A pro-Israel country on Iran’s doorstep
Baku’s relations with Israel has also been a cause for concern, particularly for neighboring Shia-majority Iran. Taking advantage of the political crisis in October 2021, Tehran held war games near the border with Azerbaijan, and following Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s remarks that Baku was harboring Israeli “agents” in Azerbaijan, authorities closed the office of Khamenei’s representative in the capital.
On 19 October, Sardar Babayev, Jalal Shafiyev, Gadir Mammadov, and Tamkin Jafarov – all members of the “Union of Clergy,” an organization representing Shia scholars and religious figures in Azerbaijan – were detained.
Nevertheless, in spite of Baku’s attempts to clamp down on religious and political voices of dissent, an Iranian supported “resistance” faction has emerged in the South Caucasus to oppose the policies of President Aliyev. Known as the Huseynyun (also the Islamic Resistance Movement of Azerbaijan), the movement was founded by students who graduated from the Qom seminary in Iran.
The Huseynyun Movement
According to Bahruz Samadov, a PhD candidate at Charles University from Azerbaijan, Huseynyun advocates for a theocratic state based on “belief and morality, justice, science and rationality, brotherhood and community.”
Members of the Huseynyun movement call for a violent overthrow of the secular system in Azerbaijan and the creation of a “Karimaha state” in the form of an “Islamic Republic,” not too dissimilar to Iran’s.
Like other factions of the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance,” the Huseynyun have been vehemently and consistently critical of Zionism and Israel, Turkey, and the US, and criticize Aliyev’s administration for its diplomatic relationships with these countries. They have also called for operations against the US embassy and Israeli interests in Azerbaijan.
The movement first initiated protests against the restriction of religious activities, but with the widespread arrest of its members and the indifference of the “Religious Council of the Caucasus,” many of its members self-exiled in Iran.
Some of them later headed for Syria, joining Iranian-backed militias to fight against the then-growing threat of ISIS. In 2013, the founder of the movement, Tohid Ibrahim Begli, met the Iranian Supreme Leader and was instructed to form an organization to recruit Azerbaijanis to fight against takfiri elements in Syria.
In late 2015, Ibhahim Begli instructed 14 students from Azerbaijan who were continuing their religious studies in Qom and Mashhad to establish a brigade. After military training, they were transferred to Damascus. There, he met the late-General Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, who gave the brigade its name.
Upon their return to their home country, many Huseynyun members were interrogated and persecuted by the Azerbaijani authorities.
Among the detainees was Elmir Zahedov, a high-ranking member of the movement who fought in Syria and was imprisoned in Azerbaijan in 2021. The year before, Falew Valiyev another member was captured in Russia and extradited to Azerbaijan.
He was charged with “being a member of a criminal group,” “training outside the Republic of Azerbaijan for terrorist purposes” and “participating in the activities of armed groups outside the laws of the Republic of Azerbaijan.” He was subsequently sentenced to eight years in prison.
Azerbaijani media began focusing on this movement when one of its members, an Iran-educated Shia cleric Taleh Bagirzade, announced a hunger strike. Bagirzade was imprisoned for calling for the violent overthrow of the “constitutional order,” the establishment of a Sharia-based system, and for engaging with his supporters in an armed confrontation with police.
This resulted in the death of two police officers and four religious activists in the religiously conservative Nardaran village in 2015.
In a leaked audiotape, Bagirzade announced that he considers Ayatollah Khamenei a “red line.” He stopped his hunger strike only after Ayatollah Ja’far Sobhani (a close associate of Khamenei’s) urged him to do so. Bagirzade was sentenced to 20 years in prison for “publicly calling for the overthrow of the government and inciting hatred.”
So far, six members of the movement have been arrested in Azerbaijan and sentenced to 12-14 years in prison after a trial in the Baku Special Organized Crime Court. One of the most prominent prisoners is Yunis Safarov, who received a life sentence after a failed attempt to assassinate the mayor of Ganja.
Segments of support
The Azerbaijani government is closely monitoring the Huseynyun ands has imposed further restrictions on religious activism, which was already securitized by the state. Pro-government circles are denouncing the movement and some MPs such as Razi Nurullayev have accused the group’s sympathizers of “treason,” thus further polarizing society.
It is worth mentioning that the movement’s main support base is located in southern Azerbaijan, a region with a history of Shia political activism.
Samadov argues that Huseynyun can potentially gain supporters among an underclass that could be attracted to the just vision of a Karimaha state and turned off by pro-government clerics. It may not garner broad support, but its ability to mobilize passionate segments of the population could lead to a polarization of a society that was once firmly united around the victory in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war with Armenia.
Interestingly, by persecuting the religious Shia activists, Baku also diverts attention away from arguably a much bigger security threat – which is the proliferation of Wahhabism/Salafism in the Caucasus. Hundreds of Azerbaijani Salafis who went onto joining ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq have not been detained in Azerbaijan.
A Caucasian ‘Hezbollah?’
Speaking at the conference on the South Caucasus: Development and Cooperation in April 2022, President Aliyev told an Iranian journalist that he had provided an extradition list of 20 Azerbaijani nationals residing in Iran to former Iranian President Ebrahim Rouhani, for their alleged involved in violent and radical activities – but received no response on the matter.
During their meetings with Iranian official, Azerbaijani authorities have regularly raised the issue of extradition in return for certain economic concessions to Iran. Yet this offer has consistently been rejected from the Iranian side, as Tehran counters by raising the issue of hostile Israeli security and military activities near the Iranian-Azerbaijani border.
In a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi reiterated his country’s position, strongly opposing any foreign military presence in the region, especially on the Caspian Sea coast of Iran. This also demonstrates that Iran is very concerned about the Turkish-Azerbaijani military alliance and Israeli military and intelligence activities near the Iranian-Azerbaijani border.
From this perspective, any political crisis perceived between Tehran and Baku in the future will not lead to a conflict in the conventional sense, given Turkey’s growing influence in the region and Russia’s need to maintain the regional status quo.
Neverthless, the emergence of the Huseynyun movement is an indicator that Iran has options with which to confront its opponents across the border in the Caucasus through unconventional means.
Iran rather pragmatically regards the Pan-Turkic-inspired Azerbaijani expansionist nationalism as a threat to its territorial integrity, due to the large Azeri ethnic minority in its northern Azerbaijan province. Iran is very well aware that its arch-nemesis Israel will have a hand in such provocations.
On 20 July, 2022, Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan George Deek posted on Twitter a photo of him reading a book on “Azerbaijani history and culture of Tabriz.” The tweet later turned into an anti-Iran campaign where many Azerbaijanis and Israelis joined and called for the Azerbaijani annexation of Iran’s northern city of Tabriz.
In response, Iran’s envoy to Azerbaijan Seyid Abbas Mousavi threatened the Israeli ambassador to “never cross the red line.”
Confronting Israel and Pan-Turkism
While Azerbaijan may be concerned about the increase of Shia religious-political activism in its country, its ally Israel is likewise highly involved in intelligence sharing with Baku to counter any potential “Iranian threat.”
According to the Israeli Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC), Iranian IRGC forces have been operating in Azerbaijan since the 1990s, aiming to “break the secular nature of Azerbaijan and change its pro-Israeli-Turkish-western foreign policy orientation toward more pro-Iran.”
To this end, in 2012, Azerbaijani authorities convicted 22 members of a network handled by the IRGC who were found guilty of conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks on Israeli and western targets. According to the report, Iran carefully implemented a policy of defending its interests by “financing subversive formations and supporting paramilitary groups.”
The report also mentions that Iran’s actions show its ability to confront its enemies through third countries, acting in unconventional ways by employing Lebanon’s resistance movement Hezbollah and the Quds Force to carry out possible “terror attacks” against Israeli and western targets in Azerbaijan.
Given the growing Israeli-Turkish influence in South Caucasus after the Nagorono-Karabakh war, the recent Azerbaijani aggression along the entire eastern and southern border of Armenia, and Baku’s intention to block the Armenian-Iranian border, Tehran will continue its effective policy of funding subversive opposition groups to try to confront any threats to its territorial integrity and interests. Successful case studies of this can be found in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.
However, despite being a Shia-majority country, Azerbaijan will continue to securitize political-Shia activism given the secular nature of the society and the institutionalized (especially after the 2020 Karabakh war) Pan-Turkic education and propaganda imposed by the state authorities.
In reaction to Iranian military drills along the border with Azerbaijan and the Iranian-Armenian rapprochement, Baku recently launched additional crackdowns on Iran-linked groups in Azerbaijan, and detained 19 people on the night of 1 November. Official Baku claimed that guns and weapons were confiscated in these raids, but leaked photos showed only CDs and books.
In short, there are significant constraints to a Lebanese Hezbollah-like scenario being replicated in Azerbaijan (at least in the near future) via the Huseynyun movement, which still lacks institutions and popular support, even in rural areas.