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Tunis - Hundreds of conservative Salafi Islamists, angered by an art exhibition they believe humiliates Muslims, clashed with police in Tunis early on Tuesday, raising religious tensions in the home of the Arab Spring.
The protesters blocked streets and set tyres alight in the Ettadamen and Sidi Hussein districts of the capital, hurling petrol bombs at security forces who tried to disperse them with tear gas and by firing bullets into the air, witnesses said.
It was not immediately clear if anyone had been hurt but witnesses said the rioters had attacked a court house in Sidi Hussein and tried to burn a police building in Ettadamen.
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 exhibition and the attack on the art works has stirred up religious tensions in the home of the Arab Spring, which has seen several sporadic confrontations between Salafi Islamists and police in recent months.
While Islamists did not play a major role in the revolution that brought down Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, the struggle over the role of religion in government and society has since emerged as the most divisive issue in Tunisian politics.
Salafi Islamists, 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 country's nascent democracy.
The clashes come a day after the leader of al Qaeda called on Tunisians to defend Islamic law from Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that won elections in the North African country in October and has since said it would not seek to impose sharia in the constitution currently being hashed out.
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 itself and the religion.
While pushing for a greater role for Islam, Tunisian Salafi leaders have said in recent weeks they would do this peacefully, without using force, and did not intend to clash with Ennahda.
However, many Salafi Islamists have said they would 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 will seek to stifle freedom of expression in the country. - Reuters