Page last updated at 17:17 GMT, Thursday, 29 October 2009

Azerbaijan's oil 'keeps critics quiet'

Ilham Ibrahimov praying
Ilham Ibrahimov has promised to continue his teaching of Sunni Islam

The government of oil-rich Azerbaijan is worried that its oilfields could be targetted by Islamist extremists but, as Tom Esslemont finds out, some people think the authorities are over-reacting.

It was the ring tone of his mobile phone which gave him away instantly. "Allaaahu Akbar" went the tinny tune.

Surely only a dedicated Muslim would choose the call to prayer as a suitable sound.

And, as I walked up to the man I presumed to be Ilham Ibrahimov, he came to greet me. "I'm Ilham," he said laughing, "please get in" - gesturing towards his old rusty white Lada.

Radical Islam

Ilham had come to pick me up to take me to the mosque, where he had been working as imam until it had been abruptly closed down by the authorities in September.

I was in Azerbaijan to investigate what its government calls the ongoing threat of radical Islam. The authorities haven't said Ilham is "radical", but he clearly thought that they had little time for his teaching of Sunni Islam.

They can close our mosque, they can silence our minaret, but it can't stop us from doing what we do.
Ilham Ibrahimov

As I sat squashed in the back of his car, he caught my eye in the rear view mirror.

"The authorities don't respect us," he said. "We have done nothing wrong. And still they punish us. What for?"

Our conversation was interrupted when his mobile phone rang again. "Allaaahu Akbar," it went - and he began another conversation in full speed Azeri.

It soon became apparent that Ilham had been on his phone organising what turned out to be an enormous lunch party.

After our interview, I was invited to his house, where we were treated to a mutton stew and potatoes followed by watermelon, grapes and some wafer biscuits.

As we ate he put on a couple of DVDs. The first was a colourful nature documentary about rising sea levels, but the next one really caught my eye.

It was a video called Conspiracy Theories Surrounding The 9/11 Attacks in New York and Washington. We sat there watching as the film repeated the chilling footage of the spell-binding moment when planes crashed into the Twin Towers.

Azerbaijan's historic buildings have been cleaned up thanks to oil profits

Azerbaijan is less at risk from attack than the countries commonly associated with terrorism, suicide bombings and the rest but it is in a difficult situation.

To the north lie the mountains of Dagestan, a place where recent bloodshed is linked to an Islamist insurgency.

In Azerbaijan itself, there have been at least two major foiled terror plots against embassies and oil installations - both of which the government has blamed on foreign insurgents.

And perhaps it is oil - or the wealth accrued from it - which Azerbaijan wants to protect more than anything else.

Perfection restored

A century ago, the capital Baku was a boom town. And it still is.

Azerbaijan's rank as the world's fastest growing economy in recent years has allowed it to pay for the cleaning of every single facade of its turn-of the-century buildings, previously blackened by pollution.

The beautiful old city and its fairy-tale walls have been restored to perfection. Old mosques too are being renovated and lined with marble, silver and gold.

You only have to go to the sandy oil fields on the shores of the grey-blue Caspian Sea outside Baku to understand where this bare-faced wealth comes from.

Flag showing picture of Heydar Aliyev
Former President Heydar Aliyev was succeeded by his son Ilham in 2003

It is hard not to marvel at the thick, black liquid seeping out of the ground and the creaking crane-sized red and blue metal arms of oil pumps, which tilt rhythmically backwards and forwards as if in slow motion.

And it is perhaps oil that has kept its elite rich, silencing many of the government's potential critics. Those who remain outspoken have at times been warned.

Critical journalists have in the past been arrested. Religious leaders, like Ilham, have been banned from work, sometimes without a coherent reason.

Indeed, the notion of authority has come to take on a whole new meaning in Azerbaijan. As a secular state, it is not religious leaders whose pictures you see everywhere, but that of Heydar Aliyev, the former president and late father of the current one.

His portrait, his busts, and his statues adorn every public office, building or square without limit. Brand new concert halls and sports complexes are named after him.

One government minister showed me the latest piece of Heydar Aliyev memorabilia - a spinning glass paperweight complete with a hologram of the great man inside.

Back in Ilham's small house, I asked him whether he fears the government in Azerbaijan after it had closed down his mosque.

"They can do anything they like," he said. "They can close our mosque, they can silence our minaret, but it can't stop us from doing what we do."

And with that his mobile phone rang again, with its same unmistakable tune.

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