TUNIS – Reflecting a growing tension between Tunisia’s secularists and Islamists, fierce clashes have been going in different cities between in the country over a decision to ban the full-face veil in university campus and the airing of an animated film depicting Allah.
"The General Secretary of the university was attacked this morning with extreme violence by a group of religious extremists," Moncef Abdul Jalil, a faculty head at the university of Sousse, about 150 km (93 miles) south of the Tunisian capital, told Reuters.
Earlier this year, the Education Ministry decided to ban students from wearing the niqab at the start of the academic year.
Accordingly, the University of Sousse refused to enroll a woman wearing a full-face veil, enraging Islamic groups in the country.
Answering a protest call, about 200 people protested outside the faculty, and then stormed the building carrying banners demanding students' right to wear a face-veil.
"This serious incident caused a state of terror and panic in the ranks of college students and professors," Abdul Jalil was quoted as saying by Tunisia's official TAP news agency.
Tunisia became the birthplace of the "Arab Spring" uprisings in January when mass protesters ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
The clashes came ahead of the country's first democratic election on October 23 in which Islamists were allowed to run for the first time.
Under Ben Ali’s 23-year rule, Tunisians were banned from wearing hijab, an obligatory code of dress in Islam, in public places.
While many Tunisians are proud of their secular constitution, Ben Ali was accused of using the specter of fundamentalism to beat up on his opponents and stifle religious freedom.
Last April, Tunisian women were allowed to wear hijab for the first time in identity card.
While hijab is an obligatory code of dress for Muslim women, the majority of Muslim scholars agree that a woman is not obliged to wear the face veil.
Scholars believe it is up to women to decide whether to take on the veil or burka, a loose outfit covering the whole body from head to toe and wore by some Muslim women.
In the Tunisian capital, around 300 protestors stormed the headquarters of a private TV station in protest ofthe airing of an animation film depicting Allah.
"Three hundred people attacked our offices and tried to set fire to them," Nessma chairman Nebil Karoui told Agence France Presse (AFP) on Sunday, October 9.
The interior ministry's spokesman, Hichem Meddeb, confirmed the incident and said that up to around 100 people had been rounded up.
"Some 200 Salafists who were later joined by another hundred people headed towards Nessma to attack the station. Security forces stepped in and broke up the posse," he told AFP.
The Islamist anger has been escalating after Friday night's showing of "Persepolis", an animation film on Iran's Islamic revolution.
"Persepolis" is an internationally-acclaimed French-Iranian animation feature based on Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical and eponymous graphic novel.
It describes the last days of the US-backed shah's regime and the subsequent 1979 revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeiny through the eyes of a young girl.
The airing of the film in the local dialect was a first in Tunisia.
"After we aired 'Persepolis' on Friday, there were messages posted on Facebook calling for Nessma to be torched and our journalists to be killed," Karoui said.
Yet, Karoui said he was ready to face any confrontations to maintain his channel’s freedom message.
"We are used to threats but what is alarming is that this time they put words into action,” he said.
“Nessma is the progressist channel in the Maghreb and we will not be deterred. We will continue to program whatever we choose.”
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