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Last Updated: Sunday, 6 November 2005, 12:39 GMT
Azeri poverty fuels rise of Islam
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Azerbaijan

Mikheil shows a greenhouse in Nardaran
Nardaran has fallen on hard times since the Soviet era
Outside the capital Baku, hundreds of oil rigs are pumping Caspian crude.

There are billions of dollars worth of oil wealth in Azerbaijan, and a potentially prosperous future.

But outside the oil town of Baku, signs of poverty are more apparent.

The road next to the oil rigs is full of pot holes, crumbling houses dot the landscape, and there are mosques - more and more of them every year.

Islam is on the rise in Azerbaijan.

The officials here say that radical Islamic groups are trying to infiltrate from nearby Chechnya and Iran and that radicalism is a real threat.

But Mikheil, who lives in the small town of Nardaran just 40 minutes away from the capital, says it is poverty that is turning him and his family towards Islam.

"Here in Nardaran, faith is all we have left. That's the only thing that is helping us to survive," he said.

Stronghold of tradition

Nardaran is a labyrinth of dusty streets, Koranic slogans painted on the walls of the houses.

In Azerbaijan, it is famous for being a stronghold of Islamic tradition. Even in the Soviet times people kept their religion going here.

Nardaran elders' meeting
The elders of Nardaran are supporting the opposition

But back then Nardaran was also a bustling market place and home to a booming flower industry. Mikheil showed us an empty garden where he used to grow carnations. The infrastructure, he explained, collapsed together with the Soviet Union.

Since then gas supplies to his greenhouses have been cut off. He has not been able to make money.

"Azerbaijan is so prosperous. It has everything - gas, oil, money, but here we have nothing. The government is doing nothing for us," he said.

A few houses down the street, seated on the carpeted floor of a spacious room, Nardaran's elders gathered for a political meeting.

They complain of economic hardship, and campaign for an opposition candidate in the upcoming parliamentary election.

It is the first vote since Ilham Aliyev replaced his father, Soviet-era strongman Heydar Aliyev, as president in 2003.

Signs of radicalism

That vote, international observers said, was marred by fraud and violence.

"This is the last test for Azerbaijan," said Rauf Arifogli, an opposition candidate from Nardaran.

Ilgar Ibrahimogli
If government rigs this vote too, people lose faith in a possibility of bringing change through a democratic process
Ilgar Ibrahimogli,
Imam and activist

"We need to have a free and fair vote. We need to bring more democracy to Azerbaijan."

But the officials say people in Nardaran are part of what they call a dangerous trend - rise of Islamic radicalism.

There are signs of it in Azerbaijan. The government is particularly concerned about the potential rise of Wahhabism, a radical Islamic sect, widespread in the northern Caucasus.

"All kinds of dangerous elements are trying to infiltrate into Azerbaijan," said Rafig Aliyev, the head of Azerbaijan's state committee for religious affairs.

"There is a very real possibility of radicalisation, but we are keeping a very tight control. We are working together with the law enforcement agencies to make sure that this does not happen," Mr Aliyev says.

But a recent study by the country's leading political scientist Arif Yunusov suggests that real reasons for the increase in the popularity of Islam lie in the widespread poverty and lack of democratic reform.

"The government is playing a dangerous game," said Ilgar Ibrahimogli, an imam who is also a civil rights activist.

"They try to stick a label of radicalism on everyone, and by that they are marginalising a lot of people."

Secret prayers

Mr Ibrahimogli is one of them. Two years ago the members of his community were forced out of their mosque in the centre of Baku.

Since then they have changed locations three times, gathering for secret prayers in rented flats.

The reason, they believe, is because their leader is linked to the opposition.

Ilgar Ibrahimogli has spent several months in jail for participating in anti-government protests after the election two years ago. This election, he believes, will be a real test.

"In this election we still have a pro-Western, democratic opposition," he said.

"But if the government rigs this vote too, people lose faith in the possibility of bringing change through a democratic process. And they will turn to alternative ways. Islam is likely to be it."

Set on the crossroads of East and West, Azerbaijan has now come to a political crossroads, too.

Many here feel that Sunday's election must bring more prosperity and freedom - otherwise the direction Azerbaijan is headed may take a dangerous turn.

Watch Natalia Antelava's report from Baku

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