Journalists jailed as response to criticism of Islam underlines rifts in Azerbaijan

Baku, Azerbaijan - A newspaper article that landed two journalists in jail and provoked Muslim protests underscores rifts over crucial issues — religion, freedom of speech and foreign influence — troubling Azerbaijan.

An expected trial on charges of inciting religious hatred could begin this month and would be closely watched in the West, which is deeply interested in Azerbaijan because of its oil riches and its strategic position between Iran and Russia.

Rafiq Tagi's article in the small newspaper Senet asserted that Islam has suffocated people, pulled them away from freedom and hindered humanity's development, and that the Prophet Muhammad created problems for Eastern countries.

If convicted, Tagi and Senet editor Samir Huseinov, whose newspaper was little known before it published the article, could face three to five years in prison. In mid-November, a court ordered them held for two months for further investigation.

Their case underlines wide complaints by opponents of President Ilham Aliev that Azerbaijan persecutes independent media.

But the struggle over freedom of speech is just one facet of a broad-ranging battle over the future of Azerbaijan, which stands at the volatile juncture of Europe and Asia.

The article sparked angry protests in Nardaran, a village near the capital, Baku, whose conservative Muslim community has clashed with the authoritarian government in the past. Some residents called for Tagi's death.

The response raises questions about the role of religious faith in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim but whose government is secular and deeply wary of any Muslims whose views and practices go beyond the bounds of the approved.

It has also compounded concerns about the influence of nearby Muslim nations — chiefly neighboring Iran, which has a large ethnic Azeri minority and is often seen as seeking to boost its clout in the smaller nation. Like Iran, Azerbaijan's Muslims are predominantly Shiite.

Reports in Azerbaijani media of protests in Iran over the article, with a religious leader reportedly offering a reward for Tagi's killing, show that Iran is seeking to use the scandal to increase its influence, said Rasim Musabekov, an independent analyst in Baku.

"Azerbaijan is in pincers" between pressure from radical Sunni Muslims in Russia's violence-plagued Caucasus mountains to the north and "strong Shiite influence from the south, from Iran," Musabekov said.

He said that "militantly anti-Western Islamic movements" are taking root in Azerbaijan.

Rafiq Aliyev, a former State Committee on Religion chief who now heads a center for the study of Islam, said that while other Middle East nations fund the construction of mosques in Azerbaijan, Iran hosts its students.

"More than 1,000 people are studying in Iran who will inculcate their knowledge when they return, and this will give (Iran) a better result than simply building mosques" in terms of gaining influence, Aliyev said.

"Certain countries are exerting huge pressure" on Azerbaijan's religious scene, he said.

But both he and Musabekov said that militant Islam is not an imminent threat to Azerbaijan. Ilgar Ibragimoglu, an imam who leads a congregation scattered among small prayer houses after authorities stripped him of his mosque in Baku, suggested the future cast of Islam here depends more on the government's actions than on external factors.

Growing interest in Islam is natural and will not take an extremist turn "if the rights of believers are not limited," he said.

Religion is not the only aspect of Azerbaijani society and politics that is subject to heated debate at home and influence from abroad, and Iran is far from the only country with an interest in its future path.

Its oil riches make Azerbaijan important to energy-hungry China, Europe and the United States and also to Russia, which is struggling to maintain influence among its neighbors following the 1991 Soviet collapse.

For the United States and Europe, it is also a key part of a corridor to supply Caspian and Central Asian energy resources westward without sending them through Russia or Iran — and a target for efforts to promote democracy in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.

Those efforts have had mixed results in Azerbaijan, where Aliev took over from his father in a 2003 election denounced by opponents as a sham, and has faced persistent Western criticism over the heavy-handed treatment of government critics — particularly in the media — and the plodding pace of moves to improve democracy.

To Leyla Yunus, a human rights activist and director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, a Baku think-tank, the arrests of Tagi and Huseinov and the reaction are less a symptom of a rise in militant Islam or foreign influence than of an overly iron-handed government.

"It was unlawful to arrest journalists for writing an article," she said. "It was wrong."