TUNIS: In the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the transition from dictatorship to democracy has been smoother than in neighbouring countries. But as a moderate Islamist party rules, an unexpected threat has emerged: the increasing boldness of ultraconservative Salafis, who want to turn the country of 10 million into a strict Islamic state.

Tunisia’s Salafis are estimated to number only tens of thousands. But their protests against “insults” to Islam have mobilised disaffected youth more effectively than secular opposition parties. Salafis are aggressively attacking the free expression of those they see as insulting Islam. Their target: artists who use democratic upheaval to ask provocative questions about the relationship between religion and society.

A film about secularism by an atheist director, a film portraying God as an old man and an art exhibit dabbling in religious themes have all provoked the Salafis’ wrath.

For Tunisia’s secular elite, the Salafis represent everything they fear with the rise of Islamist politics.

A rally in May by the group Ansar al-Shariah, led by a veteran of the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, alarmed many. Some 4 000 Salafis gathered outside the main mosque in the city of Kairouan to call for an Islamic state, chanting about conquering the Jews and cheering speeches calling for an Islamic state.

Four masked men performed Zamaqtel martial arts moves. The discipline’s founder, Mohammed Moncef Ouerghi, developed the martial art in prison. While enjoying the new freedoms, he was dismissive of Tunisia’s embrace of democracy: “Democracy was conceived of by humans, not Muslims, before the time of the Prophet Muhammad. If democracy is important, why is it not in the Qur’an?” – Sapa-AP