(Reuters) – For Walid, Tunisia’s revolution is an opportunity to turn one of the Arab world’s most secular countries towards Islam.
“We paid a heavy price for the revolution so we are not ready to let secularists and supporters of the Zionists control our destiny,” said the young man, with a beard and a long white robe, after prayers in the Omrane district of the capital.
“We want to respect our religion and to apply Islamic law in our country.
“We want Islamic schools all over the country … We do not want our women prevented from wearing the hijab and niqab (Islamic veils). We would like our country to be an Islamic country that does not allow taboo things, like wine.”
As Tunisia prepares to vote next weekend in the first election since the “Arab Spring” uprisings, people like Walid, a follower of the Salafist school which embraces a purist interpretation of Islam, are sending jitters through secular elites who fear their world could be about to change for ever.
It is a nervousness felt in Egypt and Libya where revolutions inspired by the one in Tunisia in January have handed power or influence to previously repressed groups who want Islam to play a bigger role in political life.
The Middle East is paying close attention to how Tunisia reconciles the conflicting agendas of Islamists and secularists following the ousting of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and the evidence so far is that it will be a bumpy path.
Police last week used tear gas to break up a crowd of thousands of Islamists who were trying to march on the prime minister’s office.
Another crowd attacked the home of a businessman whose television station broadcast the award-winning film “Persepolis.” Islamists say one scene is blasphemous.
The October 23 election has become a lightning rod for these tensions. Tunisians will choose an assembly to draft a new constitution, oversee the government and set in train elections for new democratic institutions.
Ennahda, a moderate Islamist group which was banned under Ben Ali, is expected to win the biggest share of the vote. Such a resurgence of Islam would be a wrenching change for Tunisia because secular traditions are so deeply ingrained.
Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president after independence from France in 1956, described the hijab, or Islamic head covering, as an “odious rag.” Ben Ali jailed thousands of Islamists.
Many aspects of day-to-day life in Tunisia display a more relaxed attitude to Islam than exists in most Arab countries.
Alcohol is sold in bars and some shops. Many women do not cover their heads. Foreign tourists sunbathe in skimpy outfits at beach resorts. Tunisia has a vibrant Jewish community.
Even when Islam is practised, it often does not conform to the orthodoxy found elsewhere.
For instance, a young woman standing outside Tunis-Carthage international airport wears the hijab and loose-fitting overcoat favoured by devout Muslims. At the same time, she is smoking a cigarette, something frowned upon by traditionalists.
Tunisians have coined a phrase for this — “Islam Lite” — and many take pride in their country’s modern, socially liberal traditions. Secularists are sceptical about Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi’s assurances he will not impose Islamist values on society.
“It will be a disaster if the Islamists win in the elections,” said Souad Layouni, a graduate in political science, at a cafe in the Al Manar district near the centre of Tunis.
“They did not accept the broadcast of the film (Persepolis). We expect they will stop festivals and close the hotels.”
Several thousand secularists made their views felt at a protest Sunday in an upmarket area of Tunis.
The tone of the debate is growing more shrill, especially on Facebook, Tunisia’s favourite forum since the social networking site was instrumental in bringing about the revolution.
One post predicts that if Islamists win the election, Tunisia will turn into another Afghanistan.
An Islamist posted that if the secularists win, “in the future we will see a man on television complaining about his 15-year-old daughter because she still keeps her virginity.”
The danger is that, whether they want it or not, both sides will be pushed into more and more radical positions.
“There is a great fear that this dispute could turn to violence in the streets if tension is raised between the two camps,” said political analyst Chadli Ben Rhouma.
But the mainstream of public opinion in Tunisia is not radical. Salafists such as Walid are a vocal yet small minority. Most estimates put their numbers at a few tens of thousands and Salafist-aligned parties are small.
The gentler brand of political Islam promoted by Ennahda is much more popular and Ennahda officials underlined their moderate credentials last week when they condemned the violent protests.
Tunisia has another factor favouring peaceful accommodation, the example of Turkey, where moderate Islamist Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has overseen political stability and economic growth despite hostility from an entrenched secular elite.
Turkey is now sharing its experience. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Tunis in February and Erdogan followed in September. Both delivered the message that Islam and democracy can co-exist. Ennahda leader Ghannouchi has also visited Turkey in the past few months.
The Turkish model appeals to the millions of Tunisians who, with Ben Ali’s repressive rule over, want to freely express their faith while enjoying the country’s modern values.
Houda, a 25-year-old employee of a call centre in Tunis, said she started wearing a hijab in February, the month after the revolution.
“Before, it wasn’t possible to wear it with Ben Ali (in power),” she said. “But now we can respect our religion without fear. This is already one of the big achievements of the revolution, to feel free to dress as you choose.
“But that doesn’t prevent me continuing to live as I did before, without fear or embarrassment. I am totally against this radical Islamist phenomenon.
“The new Tunisia should be for everyone, without exception for whatever reason.”