Police in Tunisia have arrested 86 Salafists for committing sabotage and arson. The violence reflects the deep deep divides in the country over the role of religion in society.
Tunisian police detained 86 people in Tunis on Tuesday in a clampdown on Salafi Islamists who rioted overnight in protest to an art exhibition. The Salafis claimed that the art was offensive to Islam. It was not known whether there had been any injuries in the confrontation.
"The fact that the violence erupted in several places at the same time makes us think that it was organised," said ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouche, adding that an investigation was underway.
On Tuesday, protests occurred across the capital city with Salafi adherents blockading roads and tram lines in the quarter of Intilaq, forcing shops to close, according to witnesses.
On Sunday, hundreds of protesters had sabotaged artwork at an exhibition in the Tunis suburb of La Marsa, which featured paintings caricaturing Mecca and a piece depicting a nude woman. And on Monday night, extremists set alight a police post in La Marsa and a security kiosk located in Kram. The police responded to the violence with shots, according to witnesses.
On the same day, al-Qaeda’s leader implored Tunisians to protect Islamic law from the political party Ennahda, which has governed the country in coalition alongside two secular groups since winning the country’s first post-revolution election in October. It has confirmed it will not try and establish Islamic sharia law in the new Tunisian constitution.
Salafists in Tunis have stepped up their violent behavior in recent weeks. There have been reports of members of the sect brandishing clubs and swords and setting alight shops selling alcohol. There are estimated to be around 10,000 Salafists in Tunisia, although the movement is far from homogeneous; adherents range from the strictly religious to violent and aggressive jihadists. And many Salafis claim they will not participate in behavior which they deem to humiliate Muslims or denigrate Islam. But most want a larger role for Islam in the country, something which secular elites oppose.
sej/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)