(A Tunisian flag at a peaceful demonstration in Tunis January 15, 2011/Zohra Bensemra)

Six months after Tunisia’s uprising, religious tension is rising over the limits of freedom of expression, as Islamists challenge the dominance of liberals in what was once a citadel of Arab secularism. Last week several dozen men attacked a cinema in Tunis that had advertised a film publicly titled in French ‘Ni Dieu, Ni Maitre’ (No God, No Master) by Tunisian-French director Nadia El-Fani, an outspoken critic of political Islam.

Police later arrested 26 men, but Salafists — a purist trend within political Islam advocating a return to the ways of early Muslims — gathered outside the justice ministry two days later to demand their release, leading to scuffles with lawyers. Security forces were heavily deployed in central Tunis to stop protests by Salafists after Friday prayers last week.

Secular media and intellectuals have reacted with alarm, warning that freedoms in Tunisia — a bastion of secularism under 23 years of tough police rule by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali — are in danger of being lost if Islamists across the spectrum of Islamist politics are not stopped. “This is a foretaste of what awaits us if firm measures are not taken against these sorcerers’ apprentices, since nothing will stop them attacking hotels, nightclubs or ordinary people sitting in a restaurant,” wrote Taieb Zahar in the French-language monthly Realites.

Tunisia was the launchpad for pro-democracy protest movements that have spread across North Africa and the Middle East since Ben Ali was forced from power in January. A slow transition to a democratic system is causing tension. An interim president and cabinet will not hold elections until October for a special assembly to write a new constitution that will allow for parliamentary and presidential polls at a later stage.