June 12, 2012 / 11:16 AM / 5 years ago

Salafi Islamists, police clash in Tunis

TUNIS (Reuters) - Hundreds of Salafi Islamists, angered by an art exhibition they say insults Muslims, clashed with police in Tunis on Tuesday, raising religious tensions in the home of the Arab Spring.

Protesters blocked streets and set tyres alight in the working class Ettadamen and Sidi Hussein districts of the capital overnight, hurling petrol bombs at police in some of the worst confrontations since last year's revolt ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and began the Arab Spring.

An Interior Ministry official told Reuters 86 people had been detained overnight and seven members of the security forces had been wounded as they tried to quell the rioting by using tear gas and firing into the air.

By morning, protests had spread to a number of residential districts, with young men preventing trams from passing through the Intilaqa district of the capital, where shops remained closed. There was evidence of looting in some areas, where shop windows were smashed.

The clashes come a day after a group of Salafis, who follow a puritanical interpretation of Islam, forced their way into an art exhibition in the upscale La Marsa suburb and defaced works they deemed offensive.

The work that appears to have caused the most fury and polarised Tunisians, spelt out the name of God using insects.

"These artists are attacking Islam and this is not new. Islam is targeted," said a youth, who gave his name as Ali and had removed his shirt and was preparing to confront police in Ettadamen.

"What has added fuel to the flames is the silence of the government which has taken no decision," said Ali, who did not describe himself as a Salafi.

In a statement released before the protests, Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that now leads the government, condemned what it described as provocations and insults against religion but urged its own supporters to respond peacefully.

Difficult Position

The violence puts Ennahda in a difficult position.

While Islamists did not play a major role in the revolution, the struggle over the role of Islam in government and society has since emerged as the most divisive issue in Tunisian politics and several clashes have erupted in recent months.

Salafis, some of whom are loyal to al Qaeda, want a broader role for religion in the new Tunisia, alarming secular elites who fear they will seek to impose their views and ultimately undermine the nascent democracy.

Last month, Salafis attacked bars and shops selling alcohol in at least two provincial towns, clashing with locals and police and prompting the justice minister, a member of Ennahda, to promise that perpetrators would be punished.

The clashes come a day after the leader of al Qaeda called on Tunisians to defend Islamic law from Ennahda, which won the first post-revolutionary election in North Africa in October and has said it would not seek to impose sharia (Islamic law) in the new constitution that is being drawn up.

In an audio recording attributed to Ayman al-Zawahri and released on Islamist websites, the al Qaeda leader said Ennahda, which leads the government in coalition with two secular groups, had betrayed the religion.

While pushing for a greater role for Islam, Tunisian Salafi leaders have said they would do so peacefully and did not intend to clash with Ennahda.

However, Salafis say they draw the line at actions they believe humiliate Muslims or undermine the religion.

Secularists say Salafis are unwilling to tolerate alternative points of view and seek to stifle freedom of expression. They say Ennahda has been too lenient with Salafis, giving them the confidence to step up their demands.

Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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