A day after a group of Salafi Islamists defaced works in an art exhibition in La Marsa, the protesters decided to take their disapproval to the street, prompting violent clashes with police in the Arab Spring district of Tunis.
Protesters proceeded to set fire to tyres, fire bullets into the air and throw petrol bombs at the security forces in the Ettadamen and Sidi Hussein districts of Tunis. Several witnesses also claimed that the protesters had set fire to a police building in Ettadamen and had also launched an attack on a court house in Sidi Hussein.
The exhibition that sparked the protest was titled "Spring of Arts" and featured several works which protesters believed were humiliating to Muslims. The artwork said to have caused the most offense was a piece that spelt out the name of their God, "Allah", using insects.
"These artists are attacking Islam and this is not new. Islam is targeted," a young protester said
"What added fuel to the flames is the government's silence."
Religious tensions have been ripe in Tunisia for some time now, as Salafi Islamists, some of whom are loyal to al Qaeda, want religion to play a more important role in the country. In fact, the protests began only one day after the leader of al Qaeda urged Tunisians to defend Islamic law from the country’s moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, who won the most recent elections in the country.
Tunisian Salafi leaders have claimed that they had no intention for their supporters to partake in violent clashes with police, although Salafi supporters have explained that they refused to not react to anything that they found insulting or offensive to Islam or Muslims.
On the other hand, secularists have criticised the Islamist party Ennahda for being too soft on the Salafis, stating that the group’s demonstrations against the artwork showed that they have no tolerance for freedom of expression.
So far, 162 people have been detained over the protests, and 65 security force members have been wounded in the clash. The government remains adamant that those detained will be ultimately charged under anti-terror legislation.
There are valid concerns that the protests will continue over the coming days, which has spurred the defence ministries to impose a night-time curfew on the area.