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Atheism In Azerbaijan

When she fled to Azerbaijan from Pakistan, one of our cases thought she had found freedom and safety as an atheist. Our flagship initiative here at International Association of Atheists is the Secular Underground Network, which sees our team investigating various cases of atheists in danger and how we can assist them. In just two months of operation, we have found ourselves looking into the finer points of 10+ cases. One of them is navigating life alone in Azerbaijan. At first glance, this seems to be a halfway decent place for an atheist to flee to.

Azerbaijan is a small country that, unusually, has land in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. It shares borders with Iran, Armenia, Georgia, and Russia, as well as a significant coast along the Caspian Sea. It has a population of just over 9 million people, with almost a quarter of them living in the capital city of Baku.

In Baku, the Caspian sea foreshore is quite picturesque, which soon turns into highrise apartments, and high-density living. The standout building, at least for those who are sports or concert fans, is Tofiq Bahramov Republican Stadium, a 35,000 seat venue in the heart of town, which has played host to Elton John, Jennifer Lopez, and saw 55.000 people attend a concert by Turkish-German singer Tarkan.

Azerbaijan ranked 87th in the 2019 Human Development Index. It has a reasonable life expectancy of 72 years, but a midrange homicide rate of 2 people per 100,000 (compared to 0.26 in Japan, or 52.02 in El Salvador).

Life in Azerbaijan is neither best, nor the worst earth has to offer. You could do a lot better, but you could also do a lot worse.

Religion in Azerbaijan is almost completely Muslim - about 97% of the population. Around 85% of them are Shia Muslim, and 15% being Sunni Muslim. About 3% of the population identify as Christian, with the remainder being ‘other religions’, squeezing in under 1% of the population who are declared atheists.

Juma Mosque of Shamakhi
Juma Mosque of Shamakhi

Azerbaijan is officially secular. Due to being a Soviet Socialist Republic, much of Azerbaijan’s people are not strongly committed to their religion. Only 3% of Azerbaijani’s attend religious service on a weekly basis. Less than 7% of the population responded to a 2000 survey saying they were ‘firm believers’.

It’s one of the least religious countries the ‘Muslim’ world (where Islam is the majority), with only 21% of the population, in a 2008 Gallup poll saying religion is important in their daily lives.

I found this quote on the website Quora:

“As an Azerbaijani atheist, I gladly say that it is quite common. Azerbaijan itself is a secular state and allows religious freedom. I have a few friends who are atheists. At least 70% of the Azerbaijani population states that religion plays little or no role in their lives. Even though most Azerbaijanis call themselves Muslims, I hardly found anyone who read the Quran at least once in their lifetime.”

Religion in Azerbaijan is said to be largely nominal. People who practice their religion are significantly lower than those who identify as religious.

Secularism, religion, and atheism are protected in the Azerbaijanian constitution via articles 48 (the right to liberty) and 18 (a separation of religion and state). The government can only intervene in religious activity when that activity threatens public order and stability.

When it comes to life in Azerbaijan, healthcare is underfunded (though better than its neighbours, with a fledgling health tourism industry), but is free to Azerbaijani citizens, with the option of private healthcare, the education system is structured in a similar fashion to the west, if not quite at the same level as the world’s best. Security is good in Baku, but Azerbaijan has a disputed territory, Nagorno-Karabakh, with Armenia, which is militarised, and best avoided (in fact, it’s a criminal offence to enter the region without permission from the Azerbaijan authorities). At the time of writing, borders between Azerbaijan and its neighbours Iran, Russia, and Georgia are closed due to COVID-19 precautions. With all this in mind, life in Azerbaijan for atheists probably seems as good as anywhere else. It appears, from outward perspectives, to be a secular and tolerant society where your religious independence is protected by the constitution.

However, according to Human Rights Watch,

Azerbaijani authorities have brought or threatened unfounded criminal charges against at least 40 political activists, journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders, most of whom are now behind bars.

According to Amnesty International,

the rights and freedoms of expression remain suppressed as voices are silenced. Violation of due process and unfair trials were common, lawyers harassed, torture and other ill-treatment remained endemic.

A report from 2013 called Tightening The Screws: Azerbaijan's Crackdown On Civil Society And Dissent, outlines how the country has become increasingly intolerant to opposition to the ruling political regime.

This year, Azerbaijan has made religion a compulsory part of all University education.

While we work on our case in Azerbaijan, we are keeping a close eye on these issues as they could directly affect the safety of the person we are trying to help. With the freedom of expression clearly under attack, more and more importance being put on religion and a population of 99% religious, being open about atheism is, at the very least, uncomfortable. Humanists International told us that not only do no atheist or humanist organizations exist out in the open in Azerbaijan, they feel that it would not even be possible to start such a group without serious blowback.

And so, with borders closed, the best we can do for our charge is to coach them to stay safe in Azerbaijan while we prepare asylum applications.

This is just one of then ten and rapidly increasing cases we investigate with Secular Underground Network. SUN has a team of five on staff and just two months into it, are already overwhelmed.

Here's how you can help:

  1. Donate - every dollar helps us help atheists in danger. From counselling and coaching to immigration lawyers and application fees, this process is not cheap.

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  3. Donate to the Free Hearts, Free Minds fundraiser which offers professional services to atheists around the world who are in danger.

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This post was written by Donovan Badrock. Also known as Mr Oz Atheist on Twitter, you can follow him here. This post is also the first in a series called Atheism Around the World. In the future, you can read more instalments here.

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