SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — Bearded and sweaty, they pressed in, their faces shining in the shadow and light beneath billowing tunics hanging for sale outside a mosque. The sun edged higher. A veiled woman hurried past and a boy stepped closer to listen to men complain about no jobs in fields or factories, no water in thousands of homes.
“I didn’t trust the old government and I don’t trust the new one. They lie. I trust in another revolution,” said Khalid Ahmedi, his disgust sharpening as shopkeepers slipped past him to pray. “The constitution must be based on the Koran and our prophet. I say to the enemies of Tunisia: We are the sons of Osama bin Laden.”
In this town where a fruit seller set himself on fire and inspired uprisings that swept the Arab world, men quote scripture to ease the ills around them. Tunisia has been regarded as a model for its relatively smooth shift from generations of autocratic rule toward democracy. But even as the downfall of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali in 2011 revived political discourse, it roused deep-seated strands of puritanical Islam that are challenging civil freedoms.
The moderate Islamist Nahda party dominates a coalition government but is under pressure from Salafis and other fundamentalist Muslim groups to tilt the nation closer to sharia, or Islamic law. A proposed bill would protect “sacred values” and criminalize acts such as images and satire against religion. A draft constitution designates women, who make up about 25% of the constituent assembly and are among the most liberated in the Arab world, as complementary to men in family life.
“The extremists here are like the Ku Klux Klan in America,” said Bayrem Kilani, a folk singer whose satirical lyrics have upset both Islamists and Ben Ali loyalists. “We have two ways to go now: the way of modern democracy or the way of medieval theocracy.”
Art galleries have been firebombed and ransacked, film directors have been threatened, and a prominent Nahda member was assaulted by an extremist at a recent conference titled “Tolerance in Islam.” The fervor echoes the passion of Salafis emerging in Egypt and other nations. But it appears more volatile in Tunisia, even though the population of ultraconservatives is significantly smaller.
What is unfolding here is yet another test of what will shape emerging governments in North Africa and the Middle East. The unresolved struggle between fundamentalist and moderate Islamists is the center of a larger debate with liberals and secularists over religion’s influence on public life. It has been agitated by newly free societies that feel both the tug of the traditional and the allure of the contemporary.
“I think there may be a civil war,” said Bochra Belhaj Hamida, a lawyer and human rights advocate. “Modern Islamists aren’t in a hurry to change society, but the Salafis want to do it as quickly as possible. They’re focused on Tunisia because of our advanced civil and women’s rights. They want to win here to show the rest of the region.”
Much of the puritanical wellspring emanates from rural outposts that for years swelled with hate for Ben Ali while dispatching militants to conflicts in Algeria, Iraq and other countries. Fearing that ultraconservatives will question its Islamic credentials, Nahda has done little to stem extremist tendencies. Secularists suggest Nahda is using Salafis to advance an agenda more radical than the party publicly acknowledges.
Nahda’s popularity is slipping amid a high unemployment rate, discontent among youths, labor strikes and battles over religion. Tunisians are expected to vote in a referendum on the new constitution next year and, although the country is vibrant with open debate, there is a sense that the revolution has veered in the wrong direction.
The Islamists are “not strong enough to mention sharia in the constitution,” said Motah Elwaar, a leftist. “But if they win the next election, they will change the laws.”
The capital, Tunis, resonates with Islamist ethos and cosmopolitan flair as if competing personalities are vying for the future. Despite their disarray and infighting, liberals and secularists are strong in Tunis; a recent march to protect women’s rights drew thousands into the main boulevard, modeled after a Paris street and bearing the vestiges of colonial rule.
Beyond the capital’s ring road and the Mediterranean coast, where highways narrow and dry valleys widen, fields and olive groves stretch through the dust on the way to Sidi Bouzid. Poverty is rampant and young men, like Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller who set himself on fire in despair and touched off Tunisia’s revolution in late 2010, stew in empty hours.
Down the street from Bouazizi’s memorial — a statue of a fruit cart — the graffiti of revolt had turned into a sparse poetry of despair: “It’s a shame they stole our revolution.” Soldiers stood guard at the courthouse, where scores of dissidents are on trial for storming a government building. Young secularists seemed unfocused and unsure of how to make things better.
“There’s no freedom of expression. No jobs,” said Ali Abidi, a blogger. “The Islamists are sitting on the town. The police can’t control them anymore. The Salafis don’t like what I write. One of them told me, ‘Your end is not going to be pretty.’ But we just want our rights.”
There was certainty in the voices around the mosque.
“We are Muslims. We trust only God,” said Abdel Omri, a husky man with a full beard and skullcap shopping for sandals on the sidewalk. “We only use the government to get our ID cards. It has no bearing on our lives. We don’t believe in man’s democracy. God gave us democracy in the Koran. God accepts and God forbids. That is all.”
Omri said he runs a telecommunications repair company and hires only fellow Salafis.
“I was liberal before,” he said. “I didn’t know my religion. The former regime made Islam disappear. But now I know my faith. I’m very happy. I converted two Christians to Islam not long ago.”
Behind the mosque, in a row of shops, Ussayf Issaoni couldn’t see beyond his rage: four children, high rent, water shortages, a hurting business, a failing government. He said the revolution that rose from these streets has forsaken him. New dangers, once held at bay, have moved closer.
“A young bearded Salafi was sitting in front of my store,” said Issaoni, who owns a phone accessory shop. “I asked him to leave. A lot of my customers are girls and they might feel intimidated by him. He came back with his friends and they beat me. I was in the hospital for two weeks.”
Ben Ali’s security forces arrested thousands of Islamists accused of plotting to overthrow his government and export extremism across the Middle East and Europe. Younger militants were inspired by foreign Islamic fighters and by decades during which the government suppressed even moderate Islam and dispatched state-sanctioned preachers to mosques.
The Salafi groups that have emerged after years of being underground include those run by older ultraconservatives who, like their counterparts in Egypt, want a place in the new government. But younger Salafis are more militant and resistant to compromise, regarding secularists and liberals as Zionists and infidels. They speak of spiritual renewal.
“We follow the prophet. We try to change what you believe on the inside,” said Mohamed Amim, sitting in a whitewashed mosque on a warm evening with his friends. “Our goal is not to change music and cinema, but to change the spirit.”
Nahda and other moderate Islamist organizations have yet to ease the militant passions of a group that, although small, presents a threat to a fledgling government beset with deep economic problems.
“It will be very dangerous if we try to deny the Salafis a political say,” said Abdel Cherif, a ranking Nahda member. “Our goal is to make them forget about weapons and conflict. We want them to participate in political life.”