Protesters angered by art exhibition hurl petrol bombs and set tyres alight in Tunis
Thousands of Salafi Islamists angered by an art exhibition they say insults Muslims have clashed with police in Tunis, 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 on Monday. Some hurled petrol bombs at police in some of the worst confrontations since last year’s revolt ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali as president.
An interior ministry official said 2,500 Salafis were still involved in clashes with police in the area on Tuesday evening, 162 people had been detained and 65 members of the security forces had been hurt.
A night-time curfew was imposed on the capital and seven other areas after the interior minister, Ali Larayedh, told parliament he expected the riots to continue in the coming days, stretching security forces.
On Monday, a group of Salafis forced their way into an art exhibition in the wealthy La Marsa suburb and defaced works they deemed offensive. The work that appears to have caused the most fury spelled 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 who did not describe himself as a Salafi. “What has added fuel to the flames is the silence of the government which has taken no decision.”
During the protests, young men prevented trams from passing through the Intilaqa district, where shops remained closed after outbreaks of looting.
In a statement released before the protests, Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that leads the government, condemned what it described as provocations and insults against religion but urged its supporters to respond peacefully.
The violence puts Ennahda in a difficult position. Islamists did not play a major role in the revolution, but the struggle over the role of Islam in government and society has since emerged as the most divisive issue in Tunisian politics. Ennahda, which leads the government in coalition with two secular groups, has said it will not seek to impose sharia law in the new constitution that is being drawn up.
Salafis, who follow a puritanical interpretation of Islam, want a broader role for religion in the new Tunisia, alarming secular elites who fear they will seek to impose their views and undermine democracy.
Salafis attacked bars and shops selling alcohol in at least two provincial towns last month, clashing with locals and police and prompting the justice minister, a member of Ennahda, to promise that perpetrators would be punished.
On Monday, the al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called on Tunisians to defend Islamic law from Ennahda, which he said had betrayed the religion.
Tunisian Salafi leaders have pushed for a greater role for Islam but 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 their 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.