The refrain “Islam is on the rise” lately seems to be on the lips of many politicians and policy analysts in Azerbaijan. While opposition chairmen Isa Gambar of the Musavat party and Ali Kerimli of the Popular Front party warn Western observers that the rising tide of Islam might threaten the western integration of Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev paid a state visit to Iran last month to further develop the bilateral ties between the two, often at odds, nations.
The former Soviet republic, Azerbaijan, where most people consider themselves secular Shia, boasts of its ability to separate religion and politics. The Turkish model of secularism, as opposed to Iranian theocracy, has appealed to Azerbaijani politicians since the country re-gained its independence in 1991. Yet recent studies show that Islamic fundamentalism might be on the rise.
Almost a quarter of the randomly selected 1200 respondents to a survey conducted by the Baku based independent research organization FAR CENTER favor Islamic governance in the form of Sharia. Another 29% welcomed the application of Sharia norms in some aspects of their daily life, such as family life. Another Baku-based think tank, Foundation for Azerbaijani Studies, came to a similar conclusion after its own survey. “Nearly 37% of the surveyed population in the south of Azerbaijan [near the Iranian border] favored the Sharia governance,” says Nasib Nasibli, chairman of the Foundation.
The eye-opening and chilling conclusions of these two studies send warning signals to Azerbaijan watchers around the world. Many analysts believe that the continuing widespread poverty in the country and frustration with Western policies and values have led to the increase in Islamic tendencies in Azerbaijan. Despite ongoing oil and gas projects, according to the Ministry of Economic Development statistics more than 45% of the population still lives below the poverty line. The past decade of independence did not bring much expected prosperity and social justice to the people of Azerbaijan. At the same time, the deadlocked peace process over the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, lack of international attention to this problem and some of the policies of Western countries towards Azerbaijan have led to disappointment with the Western democracies.
While the rise of Islam might hinder the overall pro-Western development and integration of Azerbaijan, large-scale oil and gas projects may be in immediate danger. The construction of the $3 billion worth Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline is about to be completed and the gas pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum has recently commenced. These vital regional projects will smooth Azerbaijan's integration into the economic and security space of Turkey and Europe. Yet a stable pro-Western political environment is prerequisite for the operation of the pipelines.
In the past several years international terrorist groups such as PKK and Al-Qaida have threatened to blow up the pipelines should their political demands not be met. Terror acts, committed by the criminal and terrorist groups in Chechnya and Dagestan are common against an Azerbaijani oil pipeline that runs to the Russian port of Novorossiysk. The Azerbaijani leadership’s decision to join the US-led coalition against terror has also upset many Islamic groups around the world. Azerbaijan, as one of the few Muslim states sending its peacekeeping forces to Iraq and Afghanistan, has become an easy and realistic target for international terrorists.
Should the impoverished and frustrated Azerbaijani population slowly shift its loyalty from pro-Western secularism to Islamic fundamentalism, the fate of the regional oil and gas projects as well as the pro-Western integration of Azerbaijan will be at a big risk. Walking in the streets of Baku these days, the last thing one would do is worry about an Islamic revolution in the country. Baku is as cosmopolitan and pro-Western as it can get. Yet beneath the surface, the seeds for Islamic fundamentalism might be slowly blossoming.
Fariz Ismailzade is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS).