28.01.2012 Tunisia

Thousands protest conservative Islam in Tunisia

Tunisian people demonstrate on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis.  By Fethi Belaid (AFP)Tunisian people demonstrate on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis. By Fethi Belaid (AFP)
28.01.2012 LISTEN

TUNIS (AFP) - Thousands of Tunisians angered by the increasing prominence of ultra-conservative Islamists in a country only recently freed from dictatorial rule took to the streets in protest Saturday.

An AFP correspondent estimated several thousand activists, professors, artists and other demonstrators flooded the streets of the nation's capital, including along Bourguiba Avenue, a well-known thoroughfare that became a centre for dissent during protests that led to the ouster of dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali a year ago.

Some in Tunisia are angry by the growing influence of radical Islamists, known as Salafists, who have dominated headlines in recent weeks.

Police on Tuesday ended a weeks-long sit-in by Salafists at the university in Manouba, about 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Tunis. The Salafists were angry the university had banned the full-face Muslim veil, or niqab, over security concerns if students were concealed from head to toe.

Journalists have also suffered attacks at Salafist protests.

"We are here to speak out against aggression against journalists, activists and academics," said Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, founder of the Democratic Progressive Party. "And to tell the government that Tunisians' hard-fought freedoms must not be compromised."

Sarah Kalthoum, a retired teacher in her 70s, said she was concerned by what she viewed as regressive ideas from Salafists.

"We spent our lives educating people, and now some want us to go back in time 14 centuries," she said.

Some in the crowd said they are sensing an encroaching religious conservativism in their everyday lives.

"The grocer told me the other day, 'I don't like your jeans,'" said Leila Katech, a retired anaesthesiologist. "I told him I didn't like his beard."

Through this religious prism, "Everything becomes tougher: Going to see a gynaecologist, what to wear, how to talk," Katech said.

Following Ben Ali's ouster, many Tunisians in October voted for the Islamist Ennahda party, which now dominates the government.

Anxious not to alienate its more radical members, the moderate Islamist party has remained quiet or reacted timidly to some Salafist incidents.

"This government is not complicit, but it is complacent," Chebbi said.

Tunisia was the first country in the Arab world to initiate mass protests against its autocratic leadership, triggering a wave of protests across the region last year in what became known as the Arab Spring uprisings that led to the ouster of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Moamer Kadhafi.

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