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Iran-Azerbaijan political tension through the prism of Ummatic identity

By Xavier Villar

The current atmosphere of tension between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Azerbaijan is something we need to understand from a political point of view.

That means we need to pay attention not just to the inflammatory statements made by Azerbaijani officials, but also focus on how each country sees Islam and its political possibilities. 

Political analysis is needed in order to debunk the essentialist reading that sees Islam as an explanation without paying attention to how it is articulated.

In other words, the Islamic Republic articulates Islam in a political way, a way that we might describe as Islamist - and we can define Islamism as a discourse that seeks to re-center Islam within the public realm of Muslim communities.

For Azerbaijan, Islam is not a political possibility but just a cultural artifact. This is not just a scholarly analysis. It has real political implications.

That's why Azerbaijan can adopt anti-Ummatic policies despite all the talk about Islam. Baku can adopt these policies because the authorities in the country see Islam as a ritualistic thing, without any anti-hegemonic features attached to it. 

We are not going to talk about the Qajar dynasty and how before the treaties of Golestan and Turkmenchay, the current territory of Azerbaijan was part of Imperial Iran.

The nationalistic rhetoric makes no sense at all from an Islamicate political identity - the idea of a nation-state is part of the Western ideology. And an Islamic political body can't be contained within the nation-state idea. 

History, the way Azerbaijan mystifies it, is also relevant here. The nationalistic rhetoric, the pan-Turkism narrative, in particular, with its expansionist goals, and the idea of a "Great Azerbaijan", are more than a threat to the Islamic Republic.

We are not going to touch upon how Azerbaijan (and Turkey) incites secessionist movements within the Iranian-Azeri population. We intend to highlight the fact that pan-Turkism, as a political ideology, can be seen as an attempt to block or erase the formation of Islamic political identity.

As an ethno-nationalistic language, pan-Turkism is a racial ideology, racial in the sense of creating an ontological hierarchy in which ethnic Turks are at the top.

This ideology aims to build a polity where diversity and minorities are pushed to the margins and the possibility of diversity is smashed under the weight of a homogenizing vision.

In this vision, Islamicate history is replaced by nationalist historiography. An Islamic identity, or a political identity built around the language of Islam, goes against this nation-state reductionism.

The Ummatic appeal in the Islamic Republic, for example, transcends both national and sectarian lines in its articulation of a Muslim political agency. Again, that's the difference between political Islam and Islam as a museistic relic, the one sponsored by Baku. 

Non-political Islam has no problems in siding with Zionists and even welcoming them with open arms. No one can deny the fact that Azerbaijan, in a non-Ummatic movement, became a sort of Zionist base.

The activities of Zionists are well known: from spying on Iran, and flying drones over military or nuclear facilities to trying to force a regional reconfiguration of borders - something that Iran sees as a red line. 

It might seem odd to defend the current borders from an Islamicate, non-nationalist, discourse. But let me try to deconstruct it.

The problem is to see the Islamic Republic from a nation-state perspective. Let's change the focus. The Islamic Republic is better understood if we see it as a "political home for Muslims", regardless of any national or ethnic belongings.

Any changes in the borders are an attack against the Ummatic identity, represented by the Islamic Republic. Pan-Turkism and Zionism share the same anti-Ummatic view and the same anti-Muslimness impulses.

Without an independent and sovereign polity, the idea of a "political home for Muslims" will be impossible and a Muslim political identity will be just a dream, not a political reality. 

As former Iranian foreign minister and noted scholar, Ali Akbar Velayati wrote in an article recently, the mere possibility of an armed conflict has to be ruled out. But at the same time, as he pointed out, any threats to the borders, any attempts to change the borders, are a red line that Iran won't accept.

This red line is not part of a nationalistic discourse, a discourse centered, for example, around the idea of a "Great Iran". No. The Iranian red line, in this case, is part of an Ummatic identity, an identity rooted in an Islamicate tradition and striving towards an Islamicate future.  

Xavier Villar is Ph.D. in Islamic studies and researcher who divides his time between Spain and Iran

(The views expressed in this article are author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Press TV.)

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