Thousands of radical Salafis urge bigger role for Islam in Tunisia

May 21, 2012

(Tunisian Salafi Islamists wave flags inscribed with Islamic verses as they attend a rally in the central town of Kairouan May 20, 2012. REUTERS/Anis Mili )

Waving black flags embossed with Islamic verses, thousands of radical Islamists rallied in the central Tunisian town of Kairouan on Sunday to demand a wider role for religion in a country long considered one of the Arab world’s most secular.

Draping their banner from the town’s ancient mosque, supporters of Ansar al-Sharia, or the Partisans of Islamic Law, one of the most radical Islamist movements in Tunisia, turned out in a show of force likely to cause alarm among secularists.

In jail or underground before the 2011 uprising that ousted secular strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and launched the Arab Spring, Tunisian Islamists have since become more assertive.

On Sunday, Salafis – followers of a puritanical strain of Sunni Islam – from around Tunisia descended on Kairouan, many wearing long beards, robes and caps.

Several speakers at Ansar al-Sharia’s second national conference had been imprisoned on terrorism charges either in Tunisia or in the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.

Speaking to cries of “Allahu akbar”, or God is Greatest, de facto leader Saifallah Ben Hussein, better known as Abu Ayadh, presented the movement’s vision for a new Tunisia in which the media, education, tourism and commercial sectors would be reformed according to Islamic principles.

“In tourism and commerce … we say to those who suffer that the solution is to end usury,” he told supporters, referring to the payment and receipt of interest, which is banned in Islam.

Abu Ayadh called for the creation of an Islamic trade union to confront the powerful and secular-dominated unions that have clashed repeatedly with the Islamist-led government, but said the movement would rely on dialogue not force.

Read the full story by Lin Noueihed here.
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