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Voice of Talysh

Голос Талыша


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Azərbaycan prezidenti administrasiyasının başçısı niyə ölkənin köklü xalqlarını dəfn etmək istəyir?
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Voice of Talysh

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WikiLeaks about Talyshs: AZERBAIJANI ISLAMIC STRUCTURE'S LAGGING LEGITIMACY POSES RISKS

VZCZCXRO8689
PP RUEHDBU
DE RUEHKB #1069/01 2360445
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 240445Z AUG 07
FM AMEMBASSY BAKU
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 3769
INFO RUCNCIS/CIS COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHAK/AMEMBASSY ANKARA PRIORITY 2333
RHMFISS/CDR USEUCOM VAIHINGEN GE PRIORITY
RUEHVEN/USMISSION USOSCE PRIORITY 0675
RUEHNO/USMISSION USNATO PRIORITY 0675
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC PRIORITY C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 BAKU 001069 
 
SIPDIS 
 
SIPDIS 
 
FOR EUR/CARC 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/24/2017 
TAGS: 
SUBJECT: AZERBAIJANI ISLAMIC STRUCTURE'S LAGGING LEGITIMACY 
POSES RISKS 
 
REF: A. BAKU 00096 
 B. BAKU 00581 
 C. BAKU 00748 
 
Classified By: Ambassador Anne Derse for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d). 
 
 1. (C) Summary: The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) -- the 
official GOAJ establishment for administering Islam -- is a 
legacy from the Czarist and Soviet approach to religion, and 
is responsible for the education and placement of imams 
throughout Azerbaijan. The CMB -- and its leader, Sheikh 
Allahshukur Pashazade -- appear to enjoy little support from 
religious Azerbaijanis, who view the Sheikh and his fellow 
CMB imams as corrupt and poorly educated. While Sheikh 
Pashazade cultivates an image as protector of Azerbaijan,s 
tradition of religious tolerance and works effectively with 
his counterparts from the Christian and Jewish communities, 
his rent-seeking activities, such as skimming money from 
donations at pilgrimage sites, the hajj, and clerical 
appointments are quickly reducing his credibility with 
religiously observant Muslims. The CMB's lagging legitimacy 
is opening up a religious vacuum for alternative sources of 
religious authority, which could create problems for the GOAJ 
over the next decade, if radical, external actors fill the 
void. End Summary. 
 
Caucasus Muslim Board: Historical Inheritance 
--------------------------------------------- -- 
 
 2. (C) The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) is a legacy from the 
Russian Czarist and Soviet approach to Islamic practice in 
Azerbaijan. Both political systems created religious 
departments within their respective governments as tools to 
control Islam. These institutions served as gatekeepers for 
appointing official clerics, regulating Islamic education, 
and shaping the overall character of Islamic practice to 
ensure it supported Moscow. The GOAJ has almost entirely 
retained this structural approach toward Islam. 
 
 3. (C) The structure represented by the CMB increasingly 
appears outmoded against the slow but steady resurgence of 
Islamic practice in Azerbaijan. While most Azerbaijanis 
still have a limited understanding of Islamic theology, a 
gradual change is occurring, particularly among Azerbaijanis 
under the age of thirty-five. Azerbaijanis' gradually rising 
interest in learning more about Islamic theology and practice 
is a key dynamic that is unraveling the GOAJ's anachronistic 
approach toward Islam as represented by the CMB. 
 
The Caucasus Muslim Board as Gatekeeper 
--------------------------------------- 
 
 4. (C) The Baku-based CMB administrative headquarters are 
located next to the Blue Mosque, although the CMB hopes to 
move to the grounds of the Teze Pir (New Holy Place) Mosque. 
(NOTE: The two mosques are the largest Shia mosques in Baku. 
 The Teze Pir takes up an entire block in one of Baku's 
oldest neighborhoods.) We estimate the CMB has several dozen 
employees. During a recent visit, clearly armed 
thuggish-looking young men were congregating in an office 
near the Sheikh's. While they were likely bodyguards, the 
open display of weapons detracts from the sense of 
religiosity of the area. All mosques must receive CMB 
approval before they can be officially registered with the 
State Committee on Work with Religious Affairs (SCWRA). 
(NOTE: The SCWRA was established in 2001. Rafiq Aliyev, the 
first chairman of the SCWRA, had acrimonious relations with 
the Sheikh and the CMB. Since the July 2006 appointment of 
new SCWRA leader Hidayat Orjuvov, however, relations between 
the two bodies have warmed considerably. Local contacts 
report the Sheikh and Orujov have reached a modus vivendi on 
the respective responsibilities for the two institutions, 
with the Sheikh taking the lead on Islamic issues. Per ref 
A, Orujov publicly deferred to the Sheikh during a December 
2006 lunch hosted by the Ambassador.) The CMB also organizes 
Azerbaijanis, participation in the hajj and other religious 
pilgrimages. 
 
 5. (C) The CMB is the gatekeeper for controlling official 
clerics and official mosques. The CMB oversees the education 
and placement of all state-appointed imams (known locally as 
akhunds) and other Islamic teachers to mosques and madrassas. 
 The CMB administers the Baku Islamic University and its 
extension branches, which are the official pathway for 
 
BAKU 00001069 002 OF 004 
 
 
becoming a cleric (ref B). The CMB also keeps tabs on the 
contents of Friday sermons in some mosques. According to 
Islamic scholar Aysel Vazirova, the CMB provides general 
guidance to akhunds in preparing their sermons. Popular Shia 
cleric Ilgar Ibrahimoglu also suggested the CMB provides 
general instructions for akhunds, but it is unclear how 
closely the CMB monitors compliance with its official advice. 
 
 
 6. (C) Our best judgment is the CMB and the security 
services keep close tabs on mosques that are suspected of 
advocating a radical or political message. At least two 
factors, however, constrain the GOAJ's ability to regulate 
sermons. First, a wide variety of Baku-based Islamic 
commentators report that radical Islamic networks 
increasingly have been pushed underground, complicating the 
GOAJ's monitoring efforts. Second, the GOAJ's ability to 
keep tabs on mosques diminishes as one leaves Baku for the 
regions. 
 
The Sheikh: Inveterate Survivor 
-------------------------------- 
 
 7. (C) Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazade -- an ethnic Talysh 
(Persian) and a professing Shia -- was born in 1949 in a 
village near the southern city of Lenkaran. The Sheikh 
received some theological training at the Mir-i Arab Madrasa, 
subsequently graduating from the Tashkent Islamic University 
in 1975. He began working at the CMB in 1975, and assumed 
the CMB chairmanship in 1980. 
 
 8. (C) The Sheikh's public image rests on his role as the 
protector of Azerbaijan's tradition of religious tolerance 
and the manager of good relations among other religious 
confessions. The Sheikh appears quite comfortable in this 
role, and uses his large, well-appointed home to entertain 
other religious officials, from Azerbaijan and abroad. The 
Sheikh has warm public relations with the heads of several 
other religious confessions in Azerbaijan, especially the 
representatives from the Orthodox Church, Catholic Church, 
and the local Jewish communities. (The Sheikh and other 
religious leaders make a regular point of showing up together 
at diplomatic functions throughout Baku. President Aliyev 
privately refers to them as "the Sheikh and his team.") In 
meetings with the Sheikh, these religious officials show a 
clear deference to the Sheikh by reiterating his points or 
acknowledging his role in promoting religious tolerance. 
Even in private meetings with these religious officials, they 
often cite the well-rehearsed talking point that the Sheikh 
has been instrumental in ensuring freedom of religion for 
their community. The Sheikh also maintains good relations 
with Islamic officials abroad, usually traveling several 
times a year to other Islamic countries. Although the Sheikh 
has cordial relations with the Embassy and U.S.-based 
religious groups, his public rhetoric over the last year took 
on a surprisingly anti-American tone following travels to 
Russia and Iran. 
 
 9. (C) Even the Sheikh's critics admit the Sheikh is a savvy 
politician, skilled at crafting a public persona, and an 
inveterate survivor. The Sheikh's ability to hold onto his 
position during the transition from the Soviet period through 
the early years of independence and throughout former 
President Heydar Aliyev's time in office and into Ilham 
Aliyev's presidency is a testament to his political survival 
skills. Local contacts unanimously report that during the 
Soviet period, the Sheikh was widely believed to be a serving 
KGB colonel. Contacts argue that the Sheikh's ability to sit 
atop the CMB for over 25 years -- despite the liability of 
being perceived as a tool of the Soviet intelligence 
apparatus -- underscores that the Sheikh is no political 
lightweight. One of the keys to the Sheikh's ability to 
survive the transition from the Soviet period to independent 
Azerbaijan was his public role in galvanizing a public 
response to "Black January," when Soviet forces stormed Baku 
and killed approximately 130 Azerbaijani citizens in January 
 1990. 
 
 10. (C) In addition to the Sheikh's political instincts and 
ability to craft a public image, the Sheikh's riches also 
appear to have reinforced his longevity. As noted below, 
local contacts report the Sheikh is engaged in a variety of 
rent-seeking activities, such as skimming money from 
donations at pilgrimage sites, the hajj, and appointing 
 
BAKU 00001069 003 OF 004 
 
 
clerics to key positions. While we lack explicit evidence, 
we believe the Sheikh probably has to pay a portion of this 
money to the Presidential Administration to maintain his 
position. 
 
CMB and Sheikh's Moral Authority Limited 
---------------------------------------- 
 
 11. (C) There is strong contrast between the Sheikh's 
carefully groomed public image and the Sheikh's dwindling 
popularity among the general population. After meeting with 
a range of Islamic scholars and practicing believers, our 
overriding conclusion is that the Sheikh and the CMB have 
little to no religious or moral authority among the general 
population, particularly among practicing, educated 
believers. Local contacts consistently point to two factors 
that undercut the religious authority of the Sheikh and the 
CMB: their limited theological knowledge and the Sheikh's 
rent-seeking behavior. 
 
 12. (C) Elshad Miri, a former SCWRA employee who has written 
over a dozen books on Islam and administers a popular 
website, told us the Sheikh has little moral authority among 
believers in Azerbaijan. Miri highlighted the Sheikh's 
widely perceived involvement in using the hajj and the 
donations collected at pilgrimage sites for his own profit. 
Kenan Guliyev, a reporter on religious issues for the 
opposition Yeni Musavat newspaper and a recent IVP 
participant, highlighted that while the Sheikh is formally a 
Shia cleric, he has no religious rank within the Shia 
clerical hierarchy. 
 
 13. (C) Farda Asadov, a former professor of Islamic history 
at Baku State University's Oriental Studies Department and 
the current executive director of the Open Society Institute, 
drew a contrast between the Sheikh and the other wings of the 
GOAJ. Asadov argued that whereas the GOAJ has generally been 
successful in monopolizing the political space, the Sheikh 
has failed to exert his authority in the religious sphere. 
Asadov pointed out that only a minority of the akhunds 
appointed by the CMB are respected by the general population, 
whereas unofficial Islamic teachers generally have a much 
higher level of support within their communities. As other 
commentators have argued, Asadov said the number of 
unofficial, underground mosques is rising, although it is 
impossible to quantify this trend. 
 
 14. (C) Fuad Aliyev, a young Western-educated Azerbaijani 
who heads a discussion group on Islamic values, estimated 
that only 30 percent of the official clerics are respected by 
local believers. While Azerbaijanis lack of respect for 
akhunds can be explained in part by Soviet period's 
anti-clerical disposition, Aliyev said the clerics' lack of 
education is a central reason for their low-standing among 
the Azeri populace. 
 
 15. (C) According to a range of contacts, the Sheikh and the 
CMB make money from several of the official religious 
activities they administer. Key sources of income for the 
Sheikh and the CMB include skimming money from donations 
boxes at mosques and holy places, the hajj (ref C), and 
funeral rites. In addition to these rent-seeking activities, 
the Sheikh and his family reportedly have a wide variety of 
suspect personal business interests. Fuad Aliyev told us 
that Sheikh has a personal cut of General Motors' business in 
Baku, granting the Sheikh access to a variety of imports 
coming from Dubai. Many other contacts report that the 
Sheikh or his family members have shady business interests in 
the construction and lumber sectors, as well as the sale of 
fruit and vegetables in southern Azerbaijan. 
 
Why is the Sheikh still around? 
------------------------------- 
 
 16. (C) Given the legitimacy problems surrounding the Sheikh 
and the CMB, we asked local contacts why the GOAJ has not 
fired the Sheikh or sought to clean up the CMB's image. Most 
argued that the GOAJ lacks a long-term strategy to deal with 
the consequences of this legitimacy problem. Nariman 
Gasimoglu, a local Islamic scholar, told us that the Sheikh 
and the CMB's lack of legitimacy have opened up a religious 
vacuum (reftels), where Azerbaijanis interested in learning 
about Islam are looking for alternative religious leaders. 
Gasimoglu continued that, while all alternative religious 
 
BAKU 00001069 004 OF 004 
 
 
leaders are not necessarily dangerous as the GOAJ sometimes 
suggests, some radical Islamic doctrines can fill the void. 
Farda Asadov said that while GOAJ elements probably 
understand the dynamic Gasimoglu described, they also 
probably perceive a risk in undertaking a CMB house-cleaning. 
 Removing the Sheikh would be an inherent admission by the 
GOAJ that the CMB structure is illegitimate. Seeking to 
reform the CMB could also open the door to clerics "outside 
of the establishment" that the GOAJ would be less capable of 
controlling. 
 
Comment 
------- 
 
 17. (C) The Sheikh and the CMB have a clear legitimacy 
problem with the Azerbaijani population. As Gasimoglu noted, 
there is a real danger that Azerbaijanis -- especially the 
youth -- seeking to learn more about the Islamic faith will 
turn to alternative, non-official sources of religious 
authority, some of which may be radical. In our view, it is 
a mistake to assume that removing the CMB's monopoly on 
Islamic practice will necessarily lead to radicalization, as 
there currently is very little support within Azerbaijan for 
radical Islam. 
 
 18. (C) Weakening the CMB's grip on religious activity in 
Azerbaijan certainly could open the door to some radical 
doctrines, but it would also level the playing field for more 
authentic, credible, indigenous voices to guide Azerbaijan's 
Muslims. On balance, we believe U.S. policy toward the CMB 
should mirror our calls for reform, liberalization, and 
de-monopolization in the political and economic spheres. The 
Embassy plans to continue to use assistance funds to support 
programs that challenge this principle of exclusive 
government control of religious practice. Moreover, it will 
raise at the highest levels of the government our analysis 
that the current corrupt religious monopoly breeds what they 
fear most -- the spread of radicalism. Decreasing the CMB's 
power would open up the religious playing field, and we think 
the moderate domestic actors currently are more powerful than 
the external, radical actors. If the CMB maintains its 
corrupt, religious monopoly, the influence of external, 
radical voices could become stronger over the next decade. 
DERSE

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