Baku media coverage of Islamic extremism reinforces Azerbaijani secularism
Although part of the Islamic world for more than a millennium, Azerbaijanis, two-thirds of whom are traditionally Shia and one-third Sunni, are first and foremost secular and tolerant of representatives of other religious trends. Those values rooted in their own history have inoculated them against extremist groups who have sought to penetrate Azerbaijan over the last two decades, and such feelings and commitments have only been strengthened by the coverage of Wahhabism in the Baku media. But so sweeping has been the denunciation of Wahhabist groups in the Baku media and so unrestricted has criticism of them been in these outlets that there may be a danger that this criticism of Islamist extremists verges on criticism of Islam itself, something that could generate a backlash. A content analysis of articles referring to Wahhabism in the online media of Azerbaijan suggests that these media have been so sweeping in their condemnation of Wahhabism as a criminal trend and in their lack of a clear definition of what Wahhabism is and what it is not that such a backlash may already be happening. To the extent that is the case, Azerbaijani Muslims who themselves oppose Wahhabist ideas and Islamist extremism may find themselves victimized by these media portrayals of what is after all a very limited trend within the Islamic community.
In recent years, the Azerbaijani media have viewed Islam with suspicion, largely because these outlets have discussed Islam only in terms of the explosion at the Abu-Bakr mosque, attacks on the US embassy in Baku, and militant activism in the North. In the absence of other coverage, such treatment tends to present all Muslims in an unfavorable light. That is all the more so because most Azerbaijanis are committed secularists and know relatively little about Islam. During Soviet times, Islamic practice was actively discouraged, but after 1991, Muslim missionaries and activists entered Azerbaijan from Turkey, Iran and the Arab countries.
The Shia missionaries presented ideas that were at least familiar to many Azerbaijanis, but those from Sunni traditions were a surprise to most. Perhaps the most unusual among these new entrants was Salafism, whose most extreme form is Wahhabism. Called “the bearded ones” by many Azerbaijanis, adherents of this trend quickly acquired an extremely negative reputation in the country, a reputation exacerbated by the conflict around the Abu-Bakr mosque and especially by the appearance of Chechen refugees in its congregation. Not surprisingly, there has been widespread support for the government’s restrictions on the activities of this particular community. Scholars like Sofie Bedford (2004) and Svante Cornell (2006) have documented such attitudes, as well as official actions against Wahhabist groups there and elsewhere in the country.
The conclusions presented below about the media’s role in intensifying such attitudes are based on an examination of articles in four outlets of the online media in Azerbaijan—including the Bizim Yol and 525-ci qazet newspapers, as well as the APA (Azerbaijan Press Agency) and Trend news agencies, over the period of 2007 to 2010. Having identified articles about Wahhabism, the author asked how has Azerbaijani media portrayed certain religious people and how was the image of Wahhabis created, and what made the religious portrayal of Wahhabis criminal?
What this examination found was that the overwhelming majority of articles were more negative than positive with terms like “terror” and “radical” used frequently in connection with Wahhabism, even though few of the stories gave any definition of Wahhabism or how it is related to and viewed by other trends in the Muslim umma. Specifically, 82 percent of the articles mentioning Wahhabis were news stories, while 18 percent were identified as analyses, with the stories ranging in length from 80 to 700 words. In 80 percent of the stories, the word “Wahhabi” was used only once, but in 88 percent of these, this trend was criticized or presented in a negative light.
Significantly, none of these stories includes any interview with or statement by a Wahhabi, and only a single article provides even a limited definition of this trend. But more than 80 percent of the stories suggested that Wahhabis were criminals and threats to the security of the government and people of Azerbaijan. Indeed, slightly more than one in five of the articles simply equated Wahhabism with radical Islam, a trend that in Azerbaijan is equated with terrorism and crime. And two out of every five articles cited officials as the source of this judgment.
The representation of Wahhabism by the Azerbaijani media is similar to the way in which that trend is presented in the Russian Federation and other former Soviet republics, but the intensity of the criticism of Wahhabism in the Azerbaijani media is striking and thus could prove counterproductive, either by causing some people to want to examine the trend more closely or by leading others to view all Muslims as potential threats.
Bedford, Sofie (2004) Islamic Activism in Azerbaijan: Repression and Mobilization in a Post-Soviet Context, Stockholm Studies in Politics 129, Department of Political Science, Stockholm University.
Cornell, Svante E. (2006) The Politicization of Islam in Azerbaijan (Washington & Uppsala: CACI&SRSP Silk Road Paper), October.
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