Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, religious groups from Turkey and Iran began flourishing in Azerbaijan.
In addition to its geographic proximity, Azerbaijan’s historical and cultural ties to both Turkey and Iran provided fertile ground for both Sunni religious endowments and Shi’a mullahs to develop missionary activities.
Turkish and Iranian religious groups were later joined by Saudi Salafi missionaries already established in the Northern Caucasus. Their relatively simple interpretation of the Koran initially appealed to many Azerbaijanis amid the overall post-Soviet spiritual vacuum.
Today, Azerbaijan is the only former Soviet republic where the Turkish, Iranian, and Saudi brands of Islam are equally present, even though they do not enjoy the same level of influence.
Bayram Balci of the Istanbul-based French Institute of Anatolian Studies researches Turkish Islamic groups in Central Asia and the Caucasus. He told RFE/RL that being a predominantly Shi’a country, Turkic Azerbaijan is a special case in the former Soviet Union. “Azerbaijan offers believers greater opportunities to practice their religion and, at the same time, offers all these movements [comparatively] greater opportunities to proselytize.”
“What is extremely difficult for the Azerbaijanis is that, religiously, they are very close to the Iranians in that they profess the same duodeciman (Twelver Imam) Shi’ism,” Balci said. “But culturally and historically they are much closer to Turkey. In any case, given the international context, they would like to get much closer to Turkey than to Iran, first because Turkey represents a sort of window on Europe, second because Turkey much better corresponds to the kind of state they see for themselves; i.e., a kind of secular state.”
Balci argued that this explains in part why Azerbaijani authorities have been generally more lenient toward Turkish missionaries than toward Iranian mullahs.
Equally crucial, experts say, is the generally secular orientation of most Turkish groups…