AZERBAIJAN: Feud over ban on Islamic head scarves fuels fears of Iranian meddling
A full-blown ideological war appears to have erupted between Iran and the secular government in neighboring Azerbaijan after Baku earlier this year banned the wearing of Islamic head scarves, or hijabs, at schools in the Caucasus nation by introducing a standard school uniform that prohibits traditional Islamic dress.
Conservative clerics in the Islamic Republic have publicly and repeatedly slammed the decision and warned Azerbaijani authorities that they're heading down a slippery slope by prohibiting schoolgirls from wearing hijabs in the classroom in the Shiite Muslim-majority nation whose citizens maintain strong ties to co-religionists and fellow ethnic Azeris in Iran.
"An ideological revolution has been staged in the republic of Azerbaijan, and this country will become one of the religious centers in the future," said a cleric named Foruqi during Friday prayers in the ethnic Azeri city of Ardabil in Iran, according to state television. "And this is the issue that scares the enemies."
Iranian officials repeatedly call on foreigners not to meddle in their domestic affairs by stirring discontent. But Iranian religious authorities appear to have no qualms about getting involved in the affairs of neighboring Azerbaijan. The powerful senior Iranian cleric Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi explicitly called on the people of Azerbaijan to reject the ban and stand up against it by practicing civil disobedience.
"The Azerbaijani people should peacefully resist this anti-Islamic decision and prevent these challenges to Islamic sacred value," the Azerbaijani English-language newspaper AzerNews quoted him as saying. "Azerbaijani dignitaries should be advised not to succumb to foreign instigators and hear the voice of their people.”
Angry public protests have taken place in parts of Azerbaijan over the new school dress code, announced verbally by the Azerbaijani education minister, Misir Mardanov. In cryptic statements to the media, he has blamed some of the rallies on unnamed foreign instigators.
"It seems to me that the protest held in front of the Ministry of Education in connection with hijab had been organized by some forces inside and outside the country. That is for sure," Mardanov was quoted as saying by the country's state-run APA news agency after protesters staged a rally outside his office in Baku earlier this month.
Mardanov did not refer to a specific country, but high-level Azerbaijani officials had previously warned American diplomats of potential Iranian "provocations," according to U.S. Embassy cables published on the WikiLeaks website.
The education minister also responded to Shirazi's veil-ban criticism, reportedly saying that the new school dress code will be enforced no matter what and that "no one should doubt that."
The move to ban Islamic veils on schoolgirls comes amid already tense relations between Baku and Tehran, partly due to the Azerbaijani government's friendly ties with Iran's arch enemies, Israel and the United States. The decision is also believed to have widened the rift between the secular government of President Ilham Aliyev and the country's growing number of devout Muslims and the religious ranks, who the government suspects are being egged on by Iran.
During the Shiite Muslim mourning day Ashura earlier this month, thousands of people took to the streets of Nardaran, near Baku, to protest the hijab ban, according to a report by Prague-based Radio Free Europe.
A video claimed to have been shot at the demonstration and posted on Radio Free Europe's website shows a large crowd of men with clenched fists raised into the air, chanting "we'd sooner die than give up the hijab" and expressing support for the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah as a local religious leader rails against the veil ban from a podium.
Few women appear in the clip, except for a group of young girls wearing veils.
The Radio Free Europe report suggests that the veil ban has sparked a backlash, with hundreds of girls believed to have stopped going to school.
"I'll never give up my hijab," Vusala Quliyeva, an 11th-grade student in Baku was quoted as saying by Radio Free Europe."They haven't shown us any official papers restricting our head scarves. I don't understand their verbal instructions, and I can't follow their order."
-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut
Photo: Azerbaijani women protest against a government decision to ban Islamic veils at schools. Credit: YouTube.
Video: Protesters demonstrate against the veil ban in Azerbaijani schools. Credit: YouTube