Tuesday, 22 November 2016 00:00

Azerbaijan’s Formula: Secular Governance and Civic Nationhood Featured

Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli and Boris Ajeganov

November, 2016, pp. 112

Read full textazsem



Executive summary

In January 2016, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev designated 2016 the “Year of Multiculturalism.” This took place at a time when Azerbaijan’s neighborhood has experienced a trend toward less rather than more separation between religion and state; and toward more ethnic rather than civic conceptions of nationhood. This trend has been particularly pronounced in two powers with whom Azerbaijan is closely connected, Russia and Turkey. Yet Azerbaijan has chosen to go in the other direction, doubling down on the country’s commitment to secular governance and an inclusive conception of the nation.

This is happening against the backdrop of often confused intellectual debates in the West on matters relating to national identity and secularism. The past few decades have seen a growing effort to deconstruct the traditional divide between ethnic, particularistic conceptions of nationhood and civic, universalistic models. Indeed, Western intellectual discourse has come to decry the concept of nation itself – whether ethnic or civic – as a political fiction promoting homogeneity, imposed by force. From this perspective came the concept of multiculturalism in its Western understanding. Yet as a result of mounting difficulties to integrate immigrant populations and the challenge of Islamic extremism, this discourse has lost much of its power of attraction. In its place, the idea of the nation-state appears to be making a comeback. 

In parallel, conceptions of secularism remain divided between the primarily Anglo-Saxon model focused on promoting individual religious freedom, and the French model of laïcité, which focuses on protecting state and society from religion. The former model has gained widespread adherence, and forms the basis for various European conventions and inter-state agreements in the area of minority protection. However, most secularists in the Muslim world have perceived the French model as the most appropriate to their particular situation. Azerbaijan is no exception. 

The Azerbaijani model draws on a long history dating back to pre-Soviet times, which includes the proclamation in 1918 of the first republic in the Muslim world. This republic was, from its inception, committed to secularism and espoused an inclusive conception of the nation known as Azerbaijanism. The republic was not destined to survive, however, but was absorbed into the Soviet Union, where Azerbaijan received status as a distinct union republic. From the 1930s, however, Soviet ethnic engineering introduced elements that affected Azerbaijani identity: in particular, it contributed to minimizing connections to Turkey and emphasizing instead the indigenous roots of Azerbaijani identity.

The transition to independence made matters of identity central to Azerbaijani politics. With minor exceptions, the country’s political forces retained a strong commitment to secularism. However, a more ethnic, Turkist, understanding of national identity briefly gained salience under the Popular Front government of 1992-93, something that exacerbated centrifugal tendencies among the country’s minorities. With the return to power of Heydar Aliyev in 1993, state policies veered back toward the policy of Azerbaijanism, which promotes a civic conception of the nation inclusive of minorities. Under Ilham Aliyev’s presidency, the government has given renewed emphasis on these issues, introducing the term “multiculturalism” in official parlance as the definition of the Azerbaijani model.

At present, Azerbaijan’s policy in the religious sphere is quite clear. The gov- ernment seeks to regulate religion through a triumvirate of institutions – the Caucasus Muslims Board, the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, and the State Security Service. The Caucasus Muslims Board is tasked with regulating all Muslim congregations in society, and projects a model of Islam that is moderate, inclusive and tolerant. Indeed, Azerbaijan has launched the unique feature of “unity prayers” where Shi’a and Sunni Muslims pray jointly in the same mosque. The State Committee, created in 2001, is the direct arm of the executive power in religious affairs, which supervises all religious 

organizations in the country. Finally, the State Security Service intervenes spe- cifically in cases where religious groups are deemed a national security threat. Thus, in the religious sphere, Azerbaijani authorities have created complementary institutions with comprehensive mandates. Indeed, over time, legislation has been passed that has increased the regulatory power of these institutions, particularly as the state has worked to minimize the influence of foreign reli- gious actors. These institutions have sought to exert control over religious literature, education and training, as well as to supervise the contents and delivery of sermons, pilgrimages, and any activities and finances of religious associations.

In the area of national minorities, by contrast, the picture is less clear. The institutional complementarity visible in the religious field has not developed; in fact, a certain institutional vacuum is visible in the area of national minority issues. Azerbaijan has espoused a model of state-minority relations that focuses on the programmatic and policy levels rather than the legislative or institutional. Rather than working actively to proactively include minorities as groups in formal decision-making, the government’s approach is based on a negative liberty paradigm. 

This stems from Azerbaijan being torn between two models: the “multicultural” and the civic. Azerbaijan is trying to thread a needle by developing policies of civic nationhood that focus on the role of the national language as the unifying force in society; while it simultaneously rhetorically promotes ethnolinguistic pluralism and adopts the term “multiculturalism” as a guiding idea. Meanwhile, in practice national minorities are integrated in the country’s economic and political system mainly by informal means. This “hybrid” model is understandable, given the Soviet heritage and the tumultuous transition to independence. But in the long term Azerbaijan’s leaders will have to develop a more clearly defined and internally consistent model of national identity and minority policy. This study finds that Azerbaijan is moving increasingly toward the promotion of inclusive, civic nationhood, a model focused on national unity and the promotion of the state language – which inherently sits uneasily with the promotion of the separateness of national minorities. At present, Azerbaijan has signed European conventions on national minorities that states based on the civic model (such as France and Turkey) have rejected – but finds that its promotion of civic nationhood prevents it from implementing them.

Western criticism of Azerbaijan’s model in the field of national minorities stems largely from this contradiction, and should be seen in this context. In the field of religious matters, however, Western and particularly American criticism stems from a failure to accept the legitimacy of the French-inspired, laïcist model that Azerbaijan espouses. As a result, U.S. institutions like the State Department’s Commission on International Religious Freedom find themselves in the peculiar situation of censuring Azerbaijan for seeking to proscribe the dissemination of extremist religious influences from Iran and the Gulf region. 

This study finds that Azerbaijan’s Western partners should view Azerbaijan as a largely successful and functioning laboratory for a civic nation and moderate Islam in the modern world. It should embrace the strengthening and improvement of secular statehood there as a strategic goal, as well as the continued secular nature of law, courts, and educational institutions. This study accepts that Azerbaijani authorities at times err on the side of excessively restrictive measures. But it finds that the influence of Western recommendations is undermined by their failure to accept the underlying legitimacy of Azerbaijan’s general approach.

Recognizing the ample shortcomings and deficiencies that exist, Western governments and institutions should work patiently but tenaciously with government and society to correct them, but on the basis of an acceptance of not only the legitimacy, but the positive value of the Azerbaijani model. This strategic goal should be assigned the same level of importance as security, democratic development, the protection of rights and freedoms, and economic development. Indeed, the advancement of secular governance, courts, and education may prove not only to be the key to progress in the other strategic areas but the most lasting contribution the West can make. 


Read 16026 times Last modified on Wednesday, 13 September 2017 17:09





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.