"In Azerbaijan the government has never arrested leaders of secular political parties. However, the IPA leadership was imprisoned on numerous occasions without any legal basis."
On January 7, 2011, Haji Movsum Samadov, Chairman of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, was arrested by the regime. Also arrested were Vagif Abdullayev, deputy head of the party, party activist Elchin Hasanov, and Samadov’s driver, Mir-Husseyn Kazimov. The arrests followed video posting on YouTube of a speech by Movsum Samadov denouncing President Ilham Aliyev for shutting down masjids, and the attempted ban on adhan and hijab. Crescent International had interviewed Haji Movsum Samedov just prior to his arrest. He is a graduate of Azerbaijan Medical Unsiversity as well as gradtuate of the Islamic University in Qum. He has been active in the Islamic movement in Azerbaijan since 1993.
CI: In the past 10 years the reputation and the influence of secular opposition parties in Azerbaijan have fallen sharply. Despite this political vacuum, the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA), functioning for almost 20 years, has not managed to fill this vacuum and turn itself into a major opposition force. How do you explain this phenomenon?
MS: Azerbaijan gained independence only 19 years ago. Prior to that we lived under a communist regime of the USSR and we almost lost all of our religious knowledge and values. After becoming free from the oppressive communist system our society became exposed to various ideologies. Since our people are Muslim, one of the natural phenomena was the establishment of an Islamic Party. However, later the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA) faced severe restrictions. Nevertheless, we are still managing to remain active abiding by the laws of the Azerbaijan Republic on political parties and based on our own internal charter. Let me remind you that there are more than 50 political parties in Azerbaijan. The majority of these political parties, however, are denied official registration by the state authorities without any legal basis. The Islamic Party of Azerbaijan is among the political parties denied registration by the regime in Azerbaijan.
Over the past several years pro-Western political parties managed to project themselves as the main opposition and played a significant role in our country’s political arena. However, because these parties did not fully understand the desires and values of our people, they could not maintain their trust. One of the main reasons for their diminished reputation was their failure to remain independent. Instead they accepted financial handouts from the US or other western countries and began to design programs to serve the interests of Western donors. Of course the regime also used these methods and then used the methods of the pro-Western opposition political parties against them. This resulted in complication and restriction of political activities in the country. That is how the political vacuum was created. When it comes to the activities of the IPA, in these circumstances I believe we must work on reviving our religious values and thought within the Azeri society because during 70 years of communist rule, our nation compromised its national foundations and interests. That is why over the past years we were mainly involved in reviving our national values within our society and now we are not the same people as we were decades ago. When it comes to the inability of the IPA to fill the political vacuum, there are several reasons for it. The main reason is that our nation is not well informed about Islam on a required level. The degree of pressure exerted on the Islamic movement in Azerbaijan is far greater than on other groups and such a situation creates serious obstacles for our work.
CI: How many members does the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan claim to have?
MS: Currently the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan has tens of thousands of supporters. We need to bear in mind that in 1995 the government canceled our accreditation as an official political organization. Currently, we are functioning based on our popular legitimacy and support. After our registration was canceled we faced immense pressure from the state apparatus. In Azerbaijan the government has never arrested leaders of secular political parties. However, the IPA leadership was imprisoned on numerous occasions without any legal basis. We continue to face government pressure; it banned us from participating in the November 7, 2010 elections. Previously when our supporters ran for parliament as independents there were numerous artificial obstacles created for their participation in the elections. I am very disappointed that till today the IPA has never been allowed to participate in elections in order to have members/supporters in parliament.
CI: In many Muslim countries Islamic organizations play the role of the opposition. However, only a few — Hizbullah, Hamas, the Ikhwan, Jamaat-e Islami, and the Islamic Party of Malaysia, for instance — have concrete political, social and economic programs to establish an alternative to the governing system. Does the IPA have such a program and if so, how is this communicated to the people? Could you also provide some information about the program?
MS: We as all other political parties have a socio-political program. At the moment the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan is revising its programs in order to improve and adapt them to the existing reality.
CI: Does the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan believe in the election process in Azerbaijan today and do you see a benefit in participating in elections under the current regime?
MS: Azerbaijan is a newly independent country; therefore defects within the country are easily ignored. In general I think elections are there to strengthen the country’s independence and traditions of statehood. That is why we are trying to make sure that our country holds fair elections in order to elect honorable people to parliament. We support those candidates with honorable programs and try to participate in elections on our own as well. When it comes to the issue of whether or not the Islamic movement in Azerbaijan believes in the electoral process here, I would like to note that we do know that electoral process in Azerbaijan is not fair and looks more like the “election” process from the days of the USSR. In the last parliamentary elections the government allowed 2,000 candidates to participate in the elections; for last November 7 elections the government had registered only 700 candidates by October 2010. However, we believe that participating in the electoral process gives us an opportunity to create a culture of political participation among the citizens even though the electoral process is severally restricted by the regime.
CI: What concrete steps does the IPA take to foster unity between Sunnis and Shi‘is in Azerbaijan?
MS: The Islamic Party of Azerbaijan always backs all initiatives which strengthen the statehood of Azerbaijan. For us someone’s school of jurisprudence is not important, the essential issues are the civil rights of every citizen. We accept differences of thought and we strive to achieve unity of Muslims in Azerbaijan and abroad. I would also like to note that within the IPA we have people from different schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Even though just over 70% of Azeris are followers of the Shi‘i school of jurisprudence, followers of all other Islamic jurisprudences live peacefully and safely in Azerbaijan. The IPA is in constant contact with our Sunni brothers and we have on numerous occasions solved many problems facing us together through mutual cooperation. In our foreign relations we try to build close ties with our brothers in Iran and Turkey. The leader of the Rifah Party, Necmettin Erbakan, was a guest of IPA and later when he was elected the Prime Minister of Turkey he invited us over and we had very interesting and fresh discussions on many issues. Our goal is not only to defend the rights of Muslims, but of all oppressed people and humanity in general.
CI: How widespread are the takfiri-minded groups in Azerbaijan?
MS: The takfiri group that some call the Wahhabi movement is a newly-founded group for political purposes. These takfiri groups that use Islamic slogans usually benefit the interests of the Zionists no matter where these groups are located. Generally Islamic schools of jurisprudence are five. Even if these schools have some differences, their similarities are much greater. When the Muslim Ummah is threatened these schools come together and unite like the fist unites the five fingers. In order to prevent such unity from forming the enemies of Islam have backed the takfiri groups. After 1995 takfiri-minded groups began spreading in Azerbaijan. Even though initially these groups grew in size, this growth was very short-lived and currently the Azeri society does not accept their shallow views. Even though at the initial stages of our independence some takfiri groups were supported by state authorities through Western backing for various reasons, today even government officials realize that assisting takfiri groups is dangerous.
CI: What are the main weaknesses of the Islamic movement in Azerbaijan?
MS: The purpose of Islam is to bring humanity to salvation in this world and in the hereafter. Prior to independence the Azeri society viewed Islam as a set of holy rituals that played an important role only during funerals and so on. However, after Azerbaijan regained its independence, Islam started to become part of our people’s daily life. We started witnessing the blessings and positive impact the values of Islam brought to our society. At the same time we have a lot of problems in our society. The nation must begin to realize that grave social problems can be solved only when based on Islamic principles and values. If people begin to understand this our society will improve and we will be able to solve many of our problems.
CI: On April 3, 2010 you had demanded the resignation of Ilham Aliyev as president of the country. This has been the first resignation call directed towards the country’s president by a political movement in Azerbaijan since 1995. What was the reaction to your demand from the government, opposition parties and other Islamic organizations?
MS: The Islamic Party of Azerbaijan realizes that we are a political organization and we fully realize the obligation of our request and the legal framework of our declaration for the president to resign. The government’s orders to close down or even destroy masjids for no reason whatsoever, the prevention to practice our religious rights, the prevention of women to wear hijab and many other social, economic and political problems present in our country obliged us after careful consideration to issue a statement calling for the president’s resignation. It is true that in recent years no one has issued such a statement in Azerbaijan, however in the political arena this statement is a natural one. When a political organization witnesses turmoil in society it must immediately take a stand on important issues. I would like to note that our call for the resignation of the president is not just the position of the IPA, but of other political opposition groups as well that see grave problems confronting our country today. Other political parties focused on the president’s purchase of expensive properties in Dubai, corruption and other political ills affecting our society. However, the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan focused mainly on social and moral problems affecting the country and we realized that it was time to call for the president to resign.
CI: Is the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan willing to cooperate with other organizations such as Musavat and Popular Front who call themselves an opposition?
MS: The Islamic Party of Azerbaijan is open to cooperation with all forces and organizations that are willing to improve the situation in Azerbaijan. We already have a history of cooperation with various other political parties in Azerbaijan such as the Social Democratic party of Azerbaijan and the Vehdat party. At the moment we are also cooperating with the Fazilet party and Birlik party.
When it comes to cooperation specifically with Musavat and the Popular Front, I would like to note that even if we are not closely cooperating with them, we have nothing against Musavat or the Popular Front. However, in certain areas we have different views. Musavat and the Popular Front have committed themselves to liberating occupied Karabakh from Armenian extremists only through negotiations. They even signed documents and treaties in this regard. We believe that it is unwise to negotiate without keeping all options on the table. If negotiations do not bear positive results, Azerbaijan has the full right to use its armed forces to restore its territorial sovereignty. Under the pretext of negotiations the Karabakh conflict has not been resolved for over 20 years now. If it continues this way, Karabakh will go through the bitter experience of Palestine. We also think that our economic partnership priorities must be directed towards building strong economic relations with regional countries. We are against the US and Israeli economic hegemony over Azerbaijan. Due to the aggressive and hegemonic policies of the US throughout the world, we believe that the US should have no presence in Azerbaijan or have a very limited one. Reducing relations with the US will also increase regional stability and security in this region. When it comes to energy politics it is a fact that while the West is sucking out our energy resources and benefits from them, our own population lives in extreme poverty. We are also against cultural imperialism of the West that damages our cultural and religious values.
CI: What would you say are the three main problems of Azerbaijan today and how should they be solved?
MS: We have many problems that are an obstacle to our development today and threaten our future. The most dangerous issues facing our society are the lack of defense of our national and religious values and the difficulty of passing our values to the younger generation. Another major problem is the interference of Western hegemonic powers in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs on political, economic and social levels. The US and Israel do what they please in our country and through the so-called international organizations often apply various conditions upon us. There is also a wide gap between the regime and the citizens of Azerbaijan. Corruption, repression and the feudal culture of conducting politics have reached unbearable levels. I think these are the biggest problems we face in Azerbaijan.
CI: How do you see the socio-political scene of Azerbaijan in 5 years?
MS: As a Muslim I am an optimist and I think that as young people in Azerbaijan are turning towards the path of the Qur’an, the example of His noble Messenger (pbuh) and his Ahl al-Bayt, we will achieve prosperity, salvation and development. However, it is hard to picture how exactly we will come out of the current bleak situation. In any case, we should not lose hope and continue our work no matter what obstacles we face.