Thousands in Tunisia protest Islamist extremism

Tunisians wave flags and shout slogans during a demonstration on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis on January 28, 2012. Several thousand people demonstrated to "defend freedom" following a series of incidents involving radicals from the Salafist movement. FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

TUNIS, Tunisia — More than 8,000 Tunisians marched Saturday through the capital denouncing violence committed by ultraconservative Islamist groups in recent months.

Since the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's secular dictatorship in a popular uprising a year ago, small groups of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafists have risen in Tunisia calling for greater piety, attacking unveiled women and secular intellectuals and occupying universities.

Organized by two leftist opposition parties, the demonstration was one of the largest marches in the country since a moderate Islamist party swept elections last year. Not far away, several hundred Islamists held a counter-protest.

"Make a common front against fanaticism," read one of the posters carried by demonstrators in the main rally, many of whom were women. "We got rid of totalitarianism, and we don't want it back," read another banner.

Tunisia's long-oppressed moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, won October's elections and formed a government with two secular parties. Ennahda has taken pains to calm the fears of Tunisia's secular elite that it would turn the country into an Islamic state.

The party has been repeatedly embarrassed by the actions of the Salafists, who appear to be justifying the warnings of secular parties such as the Progressive Democratic Party that radical Islamists are trying to change the country.

PDP leader Maya Jribi attended the demonstration and called for a "tolerant and pluralistic Tunisia where the citizens are respected in face of the death threats we hear these days."

Critics of the government say it is not doing enough in the face of the Salafi actions, which included occupying a university and preventing students from taking exams because of the institution's policy against the religious face veil.

"I came to denounce the violence and say that the government has to take responsibility for applying the law against those who are violent," said demonstrator Aicha Naboltane, 29.

The incident that appeared to have really galvanized people was an attack on secular intellectual Hamadi Rendissi and newspaper editor Zied Krichen by Salafis outside a courthouse Monday.

The two men were attending a civil trial against a television station owner for airing the award-winning Iranian animated film Persepolis on charges he "violated sacred values."

The three-kilometer long march passed through Avenue Bourguiba in the heart of Tunis, where demonstrators brought down the dictatorship a year earlier.

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