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Muslims in Oil-Rich Azerbaijan Grow Increasingly Restive

The oil curse is a term often used in explaining why many countries rich in natural resources remain underdeveloped and unstable. Corruption and the lack of democracy are often cited as factors. Oil-rich Azerbaijan, which operates under one party rule, is coping with an increasingly restive portion of its Muslim population. As part of his series on the politics of oil, VOA's Brian Padden reports that Azerbaijan's government is moving to squelch what it sees as Islamic militancy, a policy that some analysts say may not work.

Friday prayers at the Abul Bakr Mosque in Baku are so crowded that some men pray in the street.

The majority of people in the Central Asian country of Azerbaijan are Shiiite Muslims. Most were unable to practice their faith during Soviet rule, when religious expression was repressed. While the men attending this prayer service say a post-Soviet religious revival is not radical, the government is concerned about the growth of Islamic extremism.

Azerbaijani Minister for Religious Issues Hidayat Orujov, says outside agents are using some religious organizations to carry out terrorist acts.

"They are instigating instability in Azerbaijan through their various organizations," said Orujov. "However, the government of Azerbaijan and the police are maintaining very strict control in Azerbaijan to inhibit these very negative cases."

The Abul Bakr Mosque is rumored to be affiliated with the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia. But people here deny such a connection. They say they are being harassed by the government.

Haci Agatagi says he was arrested without cause, detained for five days, and forced to shave his beard.

"When the police stopped me, I said, 'Show me the law which says I cannot have a long beard'. And they said, 'You are Wahhabi. You must be stopped. This is a normal procedure against all of you'," said Agatagi.

Azerbaijan has traditionally had a tolerant environment. Women on the street dress more like those in Paris than in Saudi Arabia. The government promotes itself as secular, but it is also autocratic and does not tolerate political dissent.

Ilgar Mammadov with the Baku Political Research and Advocacy Institute says political repression is beginning to fuel discontent but he says a fundamentalist threat to the country's stability is far off.

"The real fundamentalist threat in Azerbaijan is likely only in 10 to 15 years if Azerbaijan continues this path of falsified elections and suppression of democratic and secular alternatives," said Mammadov.

Mammadov says international pressure for democratic reform is needed to provide people with moderate alternatives. The United States says its aim in Azerbaijan is to promote democratic institutions to ensure long-term security in the region.

But some critics say when it comes to choosing between promoting democracy or guaranteed access to Azerbaijan's oil, the United States does not always do the right thing.

"We have not been entirely true to our principles in promoting democracy," said Alex Alexiev, who is with the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.

He says Washington is less critical of authoritarian states like Azerbaijan if they are strategic allies, a policy he believes is short-sighted.

Instead, Alexiev urges the West to do more to develop moderate, democratic governments to ensure its long-term strategic interests in the Caspian region.