Travels in the Former Soviet Union

A Mosque Booms in Baku
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 21 2008 12:27 PM

Travels in the Former Soviet Union

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Click here to launch a slide show on day 3: a mosque booms in Baku.

BAKU, Azerbaijan—The Abu Bakr mosque is in a modest commercial district not far from Baku's train station, next to a gas station and a noisy construction site. A branch of the religious-goods chain called Muslim Shop stands nearby.

Abu Bakr's young imam, Gemat Suleymanov, preaches a Saudi-style fundamentalist Sunni Islam, known as Salafism or Wahhabism, which the government of Azerbaijan fears. The government has closed down all other such mosques in the country but has allowed Abu Bakr to remain open, probably because it fears the Suleymanov's charisma and popularity.

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One Friday morning, I visit Abu Bakr and meet Meydan, a twentysomething guy in a Brazil soccer jersey who is a member of the mosque. I want to sit in on the service, but I'm not sure what kind of reception an American would get. Meydan is exceedingly welcoming. He takes me to a mosque official who tells me it's no problem. I just have to verify that I showered that morning and promise to face forward during the service.

The service starts at 2 p.m., so Meydan tells me I should come back at 1. I get there at 1:15, and the building is already packed. I find Meydan and head toward the front, tiptoeing through the worshippers, dodging their open Qurans (some in Arabic, some in Russian). The mosque's walls are white, in the Wahhabi style, but although the mosque is just 10 years old, the walls are dirty and some paint is peeling.

Once we're settled in, he explains why he likes this mosque more than the Shiite ones that are more traditionally Azeri. "The Shiites do things that are not true Islam—they pray at the graves of holy men, they drink holy water, and they beat themselves," he says, referring—in a somewhat crude fashion—to various Shiite traditions. One of his friends takes out his cell phone, which he uses to show me a video of a black-turbaned Shiite cleric furiously beating himself around the head. "Normal people don't do this—not even Christians," he says. He uses the cell-phone video to proselytize to his friends. "I want to show them that this is not the way to be," he says.

Meydan tells me he especially admires the form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. "If you go to Saudi Arabia and have nowhere to stay, you can ask any Muslim, and he will let you stay at his house for three days. That's where you see true Islam," he says.

I also meet Elshad, who operates the mosque's sound system. He's wearing a blue polo shirt with the logo of British Petroleum, where he works as an engineer. He says BP gives him whichever two days off per week he wants, so he spends Friday at the mosque. (Azerbaijan, despite being populated almost exclusively by Muslims, has a Monday-through-Friday workweek.) "More and more people are coming here, because it's not just a variant of religion, it's the true religion," he says.

At exactly 2, Imam Suleymanov walks up the stairs to the pulpit and begins his sermon. The crowd is rapt, and several young men use their cell phones to record him. The sermon is in Azeri, so I can't understand a word, but I don't need a translation to understand Suleymanov's appeal: He has an easy conversational style, and he makes the congregation laugh several times. Afterward, I walk out with Elshad. He had told me earlier that 10,000 people visit the mosque for the Friday service. I assumed that was an exaggeration, but outside are masses of people who have listened to the sermon on loudspeakers under a large canopy, and 10,000 is probably not far from the truth.

 I ask Elshad what the sermon was about.

"He told us how to be good Muslims, what not to do."

"Like what?"

"Like not to be a suicide bomber."

"Did he really specifically mention suicide bombers?"

"No, but we know what he means."

The topic of terrorism is a sensitive one at Abu Bakr. Since 9/11, the Azerbaijani government has capitalized on the West's fear of Islamic terrorism to smear any manifestation of social discontent with the label "terrorist " or "Wahhabi." The government has accused Abu Bakr of being a recruiting center for fighters in Chechnya, and it threatened to shut down the mosque in 2003. It did imprison Ilgar Ibragimogly, another popular imam in Baku.

Earlier, I had met Arif Yusunov, a Baku analyst who has written a book called Islam in Azerbaijan. The rise of Islam, he told me, is directly related to Azerbaijan's Western geopolitical orientation. According to his theory, Azerbaijanis generally see three directions the country can take: toward the United States, Russia, or the Islamic world. Russia supports Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and so has no chance to win Baku's favor. Azerbaijanis are generally inclined to the West, but Yusunov argues that they lost respect for Washington after it supported the deeply flawed election of Ilham Aliyev as president in 2003. As a result, more and more people are turning to Islam—not just as a religion but a political orientation, he says.

The heavy Western expat presence in Baku—illustrated most vividly by the dozens of Irish bars downtown and the loutish oilmen who frequent them—combined with rising economic inequality and ugly nationalism is a dangerous enough mix without fundamentalist religion. But it seems possible that in Azerbaijan, as in Iran or Chechnya, social discontent could take on a religious character.

In an interview after the service, Suleymanov stresses many times—without my  raising the issue—that he does not support terrorism or radical groups like al-Qaida, which he calls "anti-Islam." He denies that the mosque has ever had a problem with the government and dodges any further questions on the topic.

He says he doesn't want the government to force women to cover their heads, and he tries to strike a moderate tone. The only time he sounds at all radical is when the conversation turns to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the part of Azerbaijan that Armenians have controlled since the early 1990s.

"We have terrorists in Islam, but there are Armenian terrorists as well. They committed acts of terrorism on the Baku metro," he says, referring to a 1994 attack in which 20 people were killed—the incident is generally attributed to a group advocating independence for the small Lezghi minority in northern Azerbaijan. "Wasn't that Lezghis?" I ask. "Yes, but the Armenians paid them," he responds.

I ask how he thinks the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh can be solved. "Only war," he says. "It's a waste of time to talk with the Armenians. The government has been talking with them for more than 10 years, and we've had no results. Armenians are stealing from our graves, and the government is wasting its time. The only solution is war."

I ask whether he is happy with the Azerbaijani government's orientation to the West. "It is no problem to have economic ties to the West," he says. "But we cannot take their religion or culture."

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