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Azerbaijan: Country Wrestles With Religious Freedom In Face Of Rising Islamic Influence

Traditionally a nominally Shia Muslim country, Azerbaijan has seen a surge in religious activity in the past decade, with the number of mosques increasing nearly a hundredfold, according to official statistics. The country has a long history of tolerance, but this spring has seen a number of confrontations between the state and religion that have people questioning where the line should be drawn between religious freedom and maintenance of public order.

Baku, 18 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijan may have been one of the first countries in the world to accept Islam, but the people of this majority Shia country do not generally let religion interfere too much in their daily lives.

Many people in Azerbaijan drink alcohol -- a local saying has it that the prophet Mohammed may have forbidden wine, but he didn't say anything about vodka -- and a typical young woman's summer outfit in the capital, Baku, bears more resemblance to a bikini than a burqa.

But this spring has seen a number of high-profile run-ins between the state and religion. The state has instructed all religious groups to register with a new government body, the State Committee for Relations With Religious Organizations. Many groups have complained that the committee has moved slowly on their applications or refused to register them at all.

In April, a court sentenced five Azerbaijanis and a Ukrainian to jail for allegedly plotting to attack Western embassies and overthrow the government in Baku. The prosecution alleged that the men were members of the illegal Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which advocates the peaceful establishment of an Islamic state in Central Asia.

At the beginning of May, a row broke out among several universities and the women whom they wanted to ban from wearing head scarves in class. Soon after, the State Committee for Relations With Religious Organizations floated a proposal that mullahs, or religious leaders, receive some kind of official certification.

And in perhaps the most alarming incident, months of simmering protest and discontent in the poor and deeply devout village of Nardaran near Baku boiled over into armed confrontation with security forces at the beginning of June, leaving at least one villager dead.

Rafig Aliev, head of the State Committee for Relations With Religious Organizations, said that religion was misused in Nardaran. "In the case of Nardaran, religion has been used as a tool of anxiety, not to bring peace to the people of the village. Somebody who really loves his religion would never use it for purposes like this. Religion is an internal state of a person. To pour it out in such a form is a great sin," Aliyev said.

The government seemed convinced that religion was used to stir up discontent in Nardaran. On 10 June, a week after the arrest of a number of village elders sparked the standoff between locals on the one hand and police and Interior Ministry officers on the other, two top officials of the Islamic Party were detained by police. Both live in Nardaran.

But not everyone is convinced that the Islamic Party is responsible for provoking the clash. The villagers had for months been demanding improved social services, such as repairing or building roads to Nardaran, and ensuring reliable gas and electricity.

Nariman Qasimoglu, who teaches the Koran at Khazar University, said the conflict in Nardaran was not fundamentally about religion. "The Nardaran events don't have to do with religious conflict. There was no religious conflict because they didn't say that the government was suppressing our religious values. There were a lot of people protesting some government politics, [saying] the government doesn't want to solve their problems," Qasimoglu said.

Qasimoglu, who is a vice president of the opposition Popular Front party, said the government may be using the Nardaran conflict to crack down on the Islamic Party, and perhaps to send a signal to Tehran, as well, since the Islamic Party is pro-Iranian.

Qasimoglu is among many who assume that neighboring Iran is trying to export its Islamic revolution to Azerbaijan, which has strong ethnic and historical ties to Tehran. "Maybe they think that they better use this moment to arrest them and tell people they caused all these problems. To some extent, Iran can use these events in its own interests through its intelligence services. Maybe just to make it clear to Iran that Iran has to cut all its agents here," Qasimoglu said.

One international observer who has investigated Iranian influence in Azerbaijan said that part of the mission of the State Committee for Relations With Religious Organizations is to block Iranian religious influence in the country. The observer said the committee regularly bans books coming in from Iran.

Rafiq Aliev, the committee's head, phrases his mandate more generally. "To protect the people from religion and religion from the people. We are a bridge between society and religious structures, and we would like to create tolerance among various religious communities," Aliyev said.

Although he is no supporter of the present Azerbaijani government, Qasimoglu agreed that there is a need to monitor religious activity in Azerbaijan. He admitted that the sweeping religious-freedom law introduced by the late President Abulfez Elchibey may have been "extreme." "If you open the borders to Iran or Saudi Arabia or some religious sects from Turkey, they might cause some problems because of the low level of knowledge [about religion here]. Society has to take care of all people. It's better to regulate and create a situation where all sects can coexist peacefully," Qasimoglu said.

But he warned that regulation does not mean suppression, something the authoritarian government in Baku is often accused of.

Although the population generally seems to be in favor of certifying mullahs, it is less clear that they support bans on head scarves. Aliyev said there is no official government stance on head scarves in universities, but women will not be allowed to cover their heads in photos on the new official identity cards that are being introduced.

A group of women has already threatened to take the government to the Court of Justice of the European Communities over the issue, suggesting that the struggle between state and religion in Azerbaijan is far from over.