MINELRES: caucaz.com: Georgian Azeris adopt a policy of openness towards Iran

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Tue Aug 23 09:38:22 2005


Original sender: Emil Adelkhanov <emil-ade@cipdd.org>


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Is there a place for Islam in Michael Saakashvili’s Christian Georgia?
[2/3]  
[Investigation] 

By Bayram BALCI in Tbilisi, Batumi, Marneuli, Pankisi 
On 18/08/2005 
(Translated by Geraldine RING and Victoria BRYAN) 

Second part: Georgian Azeris adopt a policy of openness towards Iran

There are 300,000 Georgian Azeris. Mainly living in Kvemo Kartli,
particularly in the towns of Bolnisi, Marneuli and Dmanisi, they inhabit
what is a highly strategic region on the Armenian-Azerbaijan border.
Situated today at the crossroads of important hydrocarbon transportation
axes on the Caspian Sea, especially the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline,
Kvemo Kartli has already forgotten its peaceful existence during the
Soviet era. In 1992-93, it even witnessed several clashes between
Armenians and Azeris, as part of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. 
  
© Bayram Balci (Marneuli) 

The leaders of the community remain firm that the Azeri minority in
Georgia today has to face up to the new nationalistic policy adopted by
Tbilisi towards the non-Georgian population. In reality, Tbilisi
authorities, who were traumatised by the conflicts that broke out
following the collapse of the Soviet Union, particularly those in
Abkhazia and South Ossetia, are inclined to consider the minorities as
an obstacle to national construction.

Georgian cultural policy in general suffers from the host/guest
dialectic. In reality, the government considers the Azeri minority as
guests being received by their Georgian hosts, and because of this they
are expected to conform to the way of living followed by the Georgian
majority.
This has the result that Georgian Azeris feel strongly marginalised when
in fact they aren’t, especially with regard to the privatisation of
land, a process about which Azeris feel wronged.
Yet, because these Azeris live in the border zones, the land they
inhabit has not been privatised as Tbilisi authorities fear that its
occupation by a ‘foreign minority’ encourages this minority to undertake
separatist actions that pose a threat to the entire country.

Lack of religious guidance

This region, which for many years was part of the Iranian Safavid
Empire, was under the direct influence of Shiite Islam Imamism, the
official religion of the empire since the reign of Shah Esma’il. The
expansion of Safavid territory in the Caucasian region, under Shah Abbas
in the 17th century, led to the spread of Shiitism in the region. Under
the Safavid Empire, Islam had a strict hierarchy and the clergy was
closely linked to the government.

However, from 1828 onwards, when Russia took over the entire Caucasian
region and defined its border with Iran on the border of the Arax, this
resulted in Shiite Islam in modern day Azerbaijan and Georgia being cut
off from the important Shiite theological centres in Iran and Iraq.
Soviet domination accentuated this rupture between the Shiite Islam in
the Caucasian region and that in Iran, especially by making the borders
with the Soviet Union totally impermeable, thus making pilgrimages to
the Shiite towns of Karbala, Mashad, Najaf and Qom impossible.

On the eve of Azerbaijan’s and Georgia’s independence, Islam was in a
weak position. Poorly structured and badly organised, it had little
control over those who had been strongly affected by the secularism
imposed by the Soviets. This includes Islam tradition, which did
nevertheless exist in the region but was wiped out by the Soviet’s
policy of atheism.
In 1991, it could be seen to what point local Islam suffered from a lack
of guidance and theologians that were capable of giving sense to the
religious preoccupations of the people. This lack of religious guidance
and the idealistic and organisational weakness of Islam were
nevertheless rapidly made up for by the reestablishment of links with
Muslim countries near the Caucasian region.

As for Shiite Muslims in Georgia, as was the case for their brothers in
Azerbaijan, the first and most important influence came from Iran; quite
expectedly one could say, given the community of past and faith that
exists on either side of the Arax.

Towards a reconquest of souls

In concrete terms, the Iranian missionaries landed in the Caucasian
region at the end of the Soviet Union to “re-Islamise” the Shiite
population, who had been subjected to decades of atheist propaganda.
Very quickly mosques were reopened, new informal madrasas (religious
schools) were opened and an abundant body of literature was translated
from Persian into Azeri and spread throughout all the Azeri-speaking
regions of Azerbaijan and Georgia. Moreover, there was a rapid rise in
the number of pilgrimages to the holy Shiite towns of Karbala and Najaf
(before the US invasion of Iraq) and also to Qom and Mashad in Iran.

Moreover, while throughout the Soviet era, Islam was studied in the
Soviet madrasas of Tashkent or Bukara, from 1991 young Caucasians began
to study in universities in the Arab world, Iran and Turkey.
As for the Shiites of Azerbaijan and Georgia, hundreds of young people
took the initiative by going to Qom and Mashdad, and, to a lesser
extent, to Tehran and Qazwin, to study theology. In the hawza of Qom, a
type of Islamic campus, two madrasas, Imam al Khomeiny and Madrasatul
Hujja welcomed some dozen Azeri Shiite students from Georgia. 
This reestablishment of links allowed Shiites in the Caucasian region to
gradually see themselves being reintegrated into the international
Shiite community.

Religious Iranians in Tbilisi

Very few people within the Shiite community in Georgia (and in
Azerbaijan) were aware of this Shiite reality before 1991.
But, as of 1992, the main mujtahid and marja’i taqlid, religious
scholars capable of teaching and interpreting sacred texts, started to
appear in Caucasian territories to such as extent that today in Georgia
it is possible to come across vekil, representatives of several of the
top-level Shiite personalities.

In Tbilisi, in the street where the sole mosque can be found in the
Georgian capital, a district where the majority of the 10,000 Azeris in
the town live, the Iman Foundation (FOI) is situated. This is run by an
Iranian monk and his assistant, an Azeri from Georgia. With its
completely legal status, the foundation offers followers religious
lessons, a small library mostly containing Shiite literature translated
from the Persian and a small conference room where religious debates
often take place.
As all believing and practising Shiites, the person in charge of the
foundation follows the instructions of a mujtahid. In this case, the
instructions of Mohammed Khamenei, the leader of the revolution in the
Islamic republic of Iran. This is therefore an institution that has
undergone influence from the Iranian state and which, through its
embassies in Azerbaijan and Georgia, does not hesitate in controlling
Islamic cooperation with its neighbours.

In Marneuli, one of the most prestigious mujtahid in the Shiite world

In the town of Marneuli, where the population is mainly Azeri, there is
another, similar foundation that is named ‘Ahli Beyt’, an Arabic term
meaning the family of the prophet and his direct descendants. 
Better structured and more popular than the Iman foundation because its
is found in an Azeri-Shiite town, the foundation is fairly active. Aside
from Arabic lessons and Shiite theology, it offers lessons in English,
IT and Georgian in order to help young people to integrate into
independent Georgia.
This foundation is run by another mujtahid (also a marja’i taqlid, in
order to imitate the other foundation), who is without doubt, the most
prestigious mujtahid in the Shiite world today. We’re talking here of
Sistani, whose works, translated from Arabic into Azeri, can be easily
found in the market or in the town mosque, not to mention the
foundation’s own library, of course. 

One of the responsibilities of the marja’i taqlid is to collect the
khamsa, the Shiite tax. This is equivalent to one-fifth of what the
follower has left once they have covered their clothing and food
requirements.
Difficult to put in place as the theological debate surrounding it is so
complex, this tax is not collected by the vekil, the representatives of
the marja’i taqlid. In actual fact, in contradiction to the (secular)
laws of this country and taking into consideration the fact that the
local population finds itself in a very difficult economic situation,
it’s impossible to conceive that taxes could be demanded from the
Shiites of Azerbaijan and Georgia. 

The Caucasian influence of Lenkerani, the Qom religious leader 

Without either vekil or offices in the Shiite towns of Georgia, another
marja’i taqlid, Fazil Lenkerani, seems to have gained much authority
amongst the Shiites of Marneuli, Bolnisi, Dmanisi and Tbilisi.
Well-respected in Azerbaijan, this scholar, who is over 75 years old,
gains his prestige and reputation from the fact that he descends from an
Azeri family originally from Lenkeran and which immigrated to Iran in
the 1920s.

Placed among the most prominent religious leaders in the hawza of Qom in
Iran, Lenkerani has a group of followers in Azerbaijan and Georgia
thanks to hundreds of students from the Caucasus who came, and who
continue to come each year, to Qom for theology studies.
On-the-spot research carried out in Qom shows the extent of his
influence on young students, who, after their studies in Qom, spread his
ideas in the Shiite regions of the Caucasus.

Baku fails to retain control over Islam in Georgia

All the mosques and religious associations in the Azeri towns of Georgia
are, in theory, under the control of the Department of Spiritual Affairs
in Baku which is headed by Sheikh ul Islam Allahshukur Pachazadeh. It is
up to him to name the young akhund in Tbilisi, who is responsible for
Islam in Georgia. In reality, however, Baku’s control of local Islam is
relative. 

Not all of the mosques and religious associations, although they are
required to be, are registered with the Department of Spiritual Affairs
in Baku. Local initiatives, sometimes supported by foreign aid are set
up by mosques without first seeking the opinion of Baku.

The theoretical supervision that Baku carries out over Islam in Georgia
comes from the good relations between Georgia and Azerbaijan, but its
control is far from being complete, especially concerning Islam in
Ajaria, which is geographically and religiously distanced from Azeri
Islam.

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