Azerbaijan wrestles with Islam in rough region

November 11, 2010


(Photo: Building boom in Azerbaijan capital Baku, 3 Nov 2010/Osman Karimov)

The view from Nardaran’s vast sandstone mosque sweeps down through roses to the Absheron peninsula and the Caspian sea from which Azerbaijan derives its wealth. Devotion to Islam defines life in this dusty coastal village, where walls carry Koranic verses and social grievances against this strictly controlled former Soviet republic find voice in religion.

But it’s a way of life that sits uneasily with the secular regime of President Ilham Aliyev, an authoritarian who draws his power from rich reserves of oil and gas in the Caspian. “They are wealthy, but they are afraid,” Haji Aga Nuriyev, Naradaran elder and former head of the banned Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, said of the political elite around Aliyev.

Like much of the former Soviet Union — Christian and Muslim — this country of 9 million mainly Shi’ite Muslims has witnessed a limited religious revival since the collapse of Communism two decades ago.

The number of Azeris who pray regularly has risen to some 10 percent, according to polls. For the majority, their faith is a matter of fact, less a defining element of identity, and women in mini-skirts stroll the capital’s affluent downtown.

But the trend is one the government is determined to control, not least given the nature of its neighborhood: To the west lies Turkey, where a secular state must accommodate growing conservative religious influences, to the south the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to the north Russia’s Dagestan, gripped by an Islamist insurgency against Moscow.

Read the full feature by Matt Robinson here.

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