Turkey radicalises the Azerbaijani community of Georgia

mosque in Georgia Azerbaijani

On January 25, German Ambassador to Georgia Hubert Knirsch visited Marneuli, the Georgian city of the region of Kvemo Kartli in which the Azerbaijani community compactly lives.

During the visit organised through the mediation of the region coordinator for protection of civil society, Samira Bayramova, the German diplomat held a meeting with the town mayor Kenan Omarov.

He also visited Georgian Centre for the Integration of Azerbaijanis in Marneuli.

Hubert Knirsch discussed with Kenan Omarov and representatives of regional human rights associations the most pressing issues associated with ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Georgia.

This included the question of creating favourable conditions for their further integration into Georgian society.

The diplomat offered to share the experience of Germany which, according to him, even in the presence of numerous diasporas inside the country, demonstrates an example of inter-ethnic and interfaith concord.

At the same time Hubert Knirsch neglected to mention that in recent years in Germany, as well as in Georgia, representatives of the Turkish diaspora became particularly active in political life of their "new homelands".

This is whilst simultaneously promoting the quite self-serving geopolitical interests of Ankara.

Turkey, aiming to become a world power, particularly at the doctrinal level, purposefully uses "soft power" in its relations with Berlin and Tbilisi.

Furthermore, if it has already become the norm to appoint ethnic Turks to high-ranking posts in Germany.

Think of Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture of Germany – son of Turkish emigrants Cem Özdemir, the Vice-President of the German Bundestag – Aydan Özoğuz woman of Turkish origin, as an example.

In Georgia, Turkish authorities actively pursue a policy of religious expansionism in relation to ethnic Azerbaijani people living in the eastern regions of Georgia.

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That is followed by growth of interfaith tensions and spread of radical Islam throughout the country.

In May-August 2021, experts of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (The Rondeli Foundation) had analysed the confessional situation in the Azerbaijani community of Kvemo Kartli.

This is an unofficial centre of Shia Islam in Georgia with about 115,000 followers, 65% of the total region population.

The results of the research showed the increase in the number of Azerbaijani Muslims practicing Sunni Islam in the region.

According to experts, this process is connected with activity of charitable Sunni organisations functioning in cooperation with the Turkish side.

This is with particular assistance from the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) and the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) headed by its President doctor Ali Erbash.

Diyanet is a government department under the authority of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and officially authorised to manage the affairs of Muslim community in the country, its relations with the country leaders and Muslims abroad.

It is also able to control and regulate activity of other religious organisations.

Diyanet is one of the public institutions receiving the greatest financial support.

The majority of Sunni imams of Georgia receive financial subsidies from Ankara and they are successors of ideology of Turkish religious preachers Osman Nuri Topbaş and Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü.

Turkish organisations purposefully introduce the most radical current of Sunni Islam - Salafism, to local Shiite youth.

It is also planned to open Sunni educational centres with inclusion of Turkish theologians in places where Shiites in Kvemo Kartli reside.

In particular, at the request of Diyanet in 2021, the Turkish leaders have allocated about $3 million to opening new religious educational institutions in regions and certain settlements of Georgia, and also for the salary of Sunni preachers.

According to Rondeli Foundation, this factor causes serious concern among three most influential Shiite organisations of Georgia, including the "Religious Council of Shiites", which controls the majority of local Shiite mosques and appointment of imams and headed by Ramin Igidov; the "Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly", headed by Rasim Mammadov and closely connected with Embassy of Iran in Georgia; and, the "Supreme Spiritual Department of Georgian Muslims" sponsored by the Iraqi Shiite spiritual leaders and headed by Mirtag Asadov.

For this reason there are occasional conflicts between Shiite and Sunni followers in the Azerbaijani community of Kvemo Kartli.

In this regard, gradual radicalisation of the Azerbaijani community is observed and there are risks of recruiting of its members to Foreign Terrorist Organisations (FTOs) in connection with distribution in the region of Kvemo Kartli of a Salafi ideology.

High concentration of its adherents are detected in Marneuli, Gardabani, Bolnisi and Dmanisi regions.

Representatives of a Shiite clergy in turn, acting as opponents of Salafis, report a threat to the national security they present.

A good example of this process could be seen during the events in Syria when a part of Azerbaijanian Salafis from the region of Kvemo Kartli took part in conflicts.

Religious preacher of the Azerbaijani origin, the head of one of rural Muslim mosques, Veysəl Orucov, is the main leader of Salafis in this region.

Representatives of his community try to get an approval from Georgian authorities to build its own mosques with a focus on Salafism, and also consider it essential to appoint persons who have got education in Turkey or in the Middle East to the posts of imams.

Salafis use prayer rooms equipped in apartments or private houses for their religious needs.

The majority of them maintain isolated way of life and promote ideas of radical Islam in their neighbourhood, inspiring the need to follow doctrines of Salafi ideologists.

This thus supports confessional intolerance in the Muslim sphere and desire for confrontation with the persons upholding the political power in Georgia.

Besides, contacts between members of separate Salafi groups in the region of Kvemo Kartli and inhabitants of the North Caucasian republics of the Russian Federation are detected, in particular with the Republic of Dagestan.

The tendencies of Islamisation of Georgian populations under the influence of Turkish propaganda are separately noted in Rondeli’s research.

According to the experts, the number of Salafi ummah’s members in Georgia grew by 70,000 people since 2005.

Today there are 470,000 followers of Salafism (13% of the population of the country against 9% in 2005).

Promoting of the Turkish Sunni Islam in Muslim-majority regions, as well as opening of new cult objects and Islamic educational institutions with financial and other support provided by Turkey, is the main reason for such processes.

As a result, the use of a religious factor by Turkey in relation to the Azerbaijani community of Georgia leads to sharpening of contradictions between local Shiite and Sunni clergies.

It also creates risks strengthening Islamic radicalism in the territory of Caucasian republics.

Kemran Mamedov is a Moscow-based Azerbaijani journalist born in Georgia with a focus on South Caucasus issues.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor