Will Azerbaijan’s resolutely secular regime make religious education compulsory? [Also in Russian] by Marianna Gurtovnik 30 January 2006
In keeping with its secular tradition, religious education barely features in Azerbaijan’s education system.
It could. Currently, the national curriculum allocates a total of 164 hours spread over 11 years and various social-science classes to familiarize students with genesis and tenets of the world’s mainstream religions. But, at secondary level, religious education is neither compulsory nor much practiced; indeed, only private schools offer specific courses. At postsecondary level, the picture is a little different – Azerbaijan has four Islamic schools, madrassahs
, and one Islamic university – but, still, it is clear that Azerbaijan is a secular state wary of mainstreaming religion as a subject.
Should that change? Should religious education be compulsory in state secondary schools? And how would that square with the constitution, which guarantees a secular education? Or, perhaps, might religious education protect, rather than compromise, secular Azerbaijan?
Those are the underlying questions that the Education Ministry has been contemplating since 2002. A recommendation was expected during the current academic year, but – once again – that has been put off until the next. So far, it would be rash to hazard a prediction about the decision.
In previous years, the education minister, Misir Mardanov, has argued vehemently that religious education is at odds with Azerbaijan's constitutional character as a secular state.
Some proponents of religious education – chiefly the the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA) – point to the experience of those state-funded universities that have incorporated religious studies into the required course load. The perceived potential virtues are various: religious education would give young Azeris a better understanding of Azeri national identity, inculcate greater tolerance toward religious differences, and make them more aware of moral values.
Rafiq Aliev, the head of the SCWRA and a long-time advocate of religious education in schools, believes that the current voluntary system fails to present religion, as a discipline, in a systemic manner. Aliev (no relation to President Ilham Aliev) has proposed merging what currently are disparate themes into a stand-alone course, “The History of Religion,” to be offered during and after school hours – for which the SCWRA has already prepared a textbook (and printed 42,000 copies, in Azeri and Russian language).
There have been some unofficial signs that Mardanov is relenting. Unnamed Education Ministry sources quoted in the Azeri press say the ministry plans to introduce elements of religious education in the near future as part of a social-ethics course mandatory for 13- to 17-year-old state-school students.
But the director of a local nongovernmental organization called Debate in Civil Society, Rufat Aliev (unrelated either to the president or to the SCWRA head), explains the lack of a swift decision. “Discussions about this course have been going on since 2002 but no decision has been made thus far because, given Azerbaijan’s multi-ethnic and multi-faith population, the consequences of this action may be painful, to say the least.”
THE THREAT FROM ALIEN RELIGIONS
Sensitivity to other religions might not, on the face of it, seem a significant issue, given that the various religious communities in Azerbaijan are very small and fragmented (they include: Jews; Catholics; Russian Orthodox; Russian Orthodox Old Believers, known as Molokans; Lutherans; other Protestants denominations; as well as untraditional groups, such as Seventh-day Adventists, Baha'is, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishnas). According to official data, 95 percent of Azerbaijan’s population of 8 million is Muslim, even if only by cultural affiliation.
Moreover, human-rights activists and Western critics would welcome a course – whether specifically in religious education or not – that would teach respect for other religious minorities, as a sign of the government's commitment to minority freedom of expression.
Yet even with such domestic and international support, the Azeri government remains hesitant about raising the profile of religion in public schools.
That may reflect a general wariness toward religion. Certainly, there has been concern about the rise in popularity of alternative, untraditional faiths or denominations. They may number just 5,000 to 7,000 (an unofficial estimate for 1992–2002), but Azeris who have converted to other religions – mostly evangelical brands of Christianity, Baha'ism, and Hare Krishnas – have drawn alarm, even hostility.
Some believe Azerbaijan’s postindependence woes – a shattered economy, mass unemployment, armed conflict with Armenia, and the resulting displacement of up to 800,000 Azeris – made the largely impoverished local population receptive to such new beliefs. It may also be indicative of a spiritual void, a Soviet legacy.
The state itself has not been receptive. It bans proselytizing by foreign religious groups. Registration requirements can be tough, and some groups have had to re-register themselves three times in the past decade. In that time, various Christian groups have been outlawed and disbanded, and have received unfavorable press.
THE THREAT FROM RADICAL ISLAM
But the government's greatest concern may be new Islamic groups. Some have been disbanded, and foreign preachers deported. In some cases, their teachings are too radical; in other instances, they are relatively novel or different from those in the Azeri mainstream. Typically, they are all referred to as "Wahhabist," followers of a fundamentalist form of Islam, Wahhabism, which originated in Saudi Arabia.
Religious militancy of various sorts is undoubtedly a worry. To the north of Azerbaijan, there is the war-torn Russian republic of Chechnya and the restive republic of Dagestan. In both, radical Islam has gained ground over the past decade. To the south, there is the religious – and sometimes, still revolutionary – conservatism of Iran, which has an Azeri minority that eclipses Azerbaijan's own population.
Within Azerbaijan itself, there are tensions between the minority Sunni Muslims (roughly 30 percent of the population) and the Shiite Muslim majority.
“Even though many Azeris say that there already is a high level of religious tolerance here, you can see on the everyday level that this is not indeed the case,” says a foreign expert who oversees civic education projects for an international nongovernmental organization in Azerbaijan. “Even among Muslims themselves, Azeris commit little infringements upon the right of other Muslims to hold differing beliefs.”
He sees that as an argument for religious education. "The minority Sunni Muslims … find themselves in situations where individuals who subscribe to the Shiite belief system view them as betraying Azerbaijan's 'national heritage' and call them Wahabbis. So, if done well," he continues, "a class on religion could be enlightening and could help to lessen these instances of intolerance to religious difference.”
But tensions like these may help explain why secularism is held on to with tenacity. That embrace of secularism may partly explain why Azerbaijan was the first Muslim state to join the United States–led anti-terrorism campaign by making its air bases available to coalition forces and by deploying peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But, as in France, the clash between secularism and religion has been most visible recently in the issue of the hijab
, Muslim headwear for women. Women find that officials require them to remove their hijab for passport photos.
“Officials probably believe that banning the hijab on document photos will be seen by the international community as a war on Islamic radicalism, as part of the war on terrorism,” says Eldar Zeynalov, director of the Azerbaijan Human Rights Center.
However, the debate about the hijab predates the fight against terrorism. In 1999, the issue of passport photos went to court (with the hijab being deemed permissible); it resurfaced in 2002, when a number of higher-education institutes told their students not to wear headscarves in class. The issue remains a matter of contention between lawyers and officials.
In education, there has been at least one case of a school principal dismissing a teacher who wore a hijab, although the teacher later won the case in court. Another public-school principal in a Baku suburb, reportedly, ripped hijabs off the heads of eight female students in her school.
Official reaction to the incident was confusing. “No one forbids girls from attending lessons in headscarves. It would be wrong to force them to remove their headscarves and leave the lessons,” Education Minister Mardanov said in an interview in the Azeri press. However, the head of his ministry’s press service, Bayram Huseynzadeh, endorsed the principal’s actions, saying it was one of the principal’s responsibilities to enforce a civil dress code in school.
NAVIGATING THE SEA OF RELIGION
What the intensity of the debate belies is that, in one key respect, the opponents and proponents of religious education share the same basic aim: to prevent religious radicalization. That should not be a surprise, because most of the debate that surfaces in public is between groups linked to the state, be it the Education Ministry or the SCWRA.
There seems no immediate likelihood that the state will decide whether religious education is a buttress or a breach in the secular system.
But, meanwhile, the state is considering whether to slowly continue developing ties with the rest of the Islamic world. Since 1991, Islam has undoubtedly become more of a presence in Azeri life, with, for example, the now-deceased President Heidar Aliev making the hajj
pilgrimage to Mecca. While it ponders the issue of religious education, the Education Ministry is also considering launching Arab-language courses in schools.
For some teachers, all this is an irrelevance, if not an irritation. Teachers who are “among the country’s most humiliated social groups” and have to subsist on low salaries “have no time for lofty ethic ideas,” one local education expert notes bitterly.