PM+: EU must strengthen eastern and southern neighbourhood in fight against radicalism

Secularism, as a bulwark to radicalisation, should be a key EU foreign policy priority, argues the European Foundation for Democracy's Tommaso Virgili.

By Tommaso Virgili

16 Jul 2015

In the framework of our counter radicalisation programme, the European Foundation for Democracy is analysing the phenomenon of radicalisation in the eastern European and southern neighbourhoods.

We are examining the situation on the ground in a number of countries in the region - Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Georgia - with the aim of identifying patterns and trends as well as specific local and regional developments in order to provide specific policy recommendations. This will serve as a basis for comprehensive, well-tailored responses to the risks that religious radicalisation poses.

We have selected Azerbaijan as the first country in the series. A secular state with a majority-Muslim population, Azerbaijan is characterised by an enlightened and tolerant attitude towards religion and a high degree of peaceful cohabitation among different communities. Uniquely, it stands out as a country where Shia and Sunnis pray in the same mosque and are represented by a unified body, the Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB)


This, we would argue, is made possible by its secular state system, which is founded on freedom of religion, separation between church and state and equality of all faiths before the law. Secularism stands out as the major distinguishing factor, differentiating Azerbaijan from the majority of other Muslim states.

Azerbaijan represents tangible evidence that secularism is not antithetical to Islam; on the contrary, it is the key for Muslims of different denominations to live peacefully together, with believers and non-believers. This is an important finding emerging from our research: encouraging separation between religion and politics is, we believe, optimal to achieving societal harmony and respect for all citizens.

This Azerbaijani secular model is, however, threatened by forces which seek to replace it with one based on radical religious rules, following either Shia or Sunni (Salafi) ideologies.

While Shia are supported by Iran, and Salafists by a variety of actors linked to the Gulf states, Chechen and Dagestani rebels, Al Qaeda and Isis, we can observe similar patterns employed potentially to destabilise secular Azerbaijan.

In particular, imams trained abroad and foreign NGOs ostensibly undertaking humanitarian activities, though in reality advancing an extremist agenda, have been effective vehicles of radicalisation. A radical Shia party, supported by Iran, has also been active in trying to replace Azerbaijan's secular system with one based on sharia law.

These findings demonstrate that the threat is not only an overtly violent one, but also conducted through social and political means. Surprisingly, some of these more radical groups and individuals have occasionally succeeded in presenting themselves in the west as champions of democracy.

Of more serious concern is that both Iran and the Salafist groups have been implicated in terrorist plots and attacks against symbolic targets,

Azerbaijan has responded to the threat in a number of ways. Imams must be trained in the country and religious education has been centralised under the control of the CMB, which is also entrusted with supervision of the country's mosques. Similarly, foreign funding directed to NGOs must be approved by the ministries of finance and justice, to avoid these being used for extremist purposes.

The state committee for work with religious organisations is charged with the registration of religious organisations, and can refuse those promoting a radical and discriminatory ideology. Furthermore, to counter the Isis threat, serving as a foreign fighter is now a crime. The government has also invested in education, opposing the radical narrative with one based on a modern interpretation of religion compatible with secular values.

Preserving the secular nature and the pro-western attitude of Azerbaijan should be a key priority for European policymakers, as the country has strategic importance.

Azerbaijan could represent a model for other Muslim countries, as a successful example of how secularism brings about religious tolerance and social harmony. Azerbaijan can potentially be a bridge between the west and the east, being at the same time part of the Council of Europe, the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation and the Commonwealth of Independent States, while also having military ties with the west.

Azerbaijan has been an important strategic and geopolitical ally of the west in areas such as energy, security, counter-terrorism, and military operations.

EU policymakers should explore ways to strengthen this strategic partnership sharing best practices and creating synergies in the fight against religious radicalisation.

It is critical that Europe is aware of the risks it could potentially face should radical elements become more established within the borders of a key partner in its immediate neighbourhood.

More broadly, strengthening ties with southern and eastern neighbouring countries in the fight against radicalisation should be a priority for EU foreign policy.

Read the most recent articles written by Tommaso Virgili - Refugee Integration in Europe: good practices and challenges