RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renée Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Let's continue, this week's look at an ultraconservative religious movement that is jostling for power in the Arab world. When an uprising swept aside the long-time ruler of Tunisia, a religious political party soon took power. Women, for example, might have veils snatched off their heads in the past. That has changed. But the moderate Islamist government faces pressure from the ultraconservatives who want more. They're known as Salafis, people who claim to follow the practices of the earliest Muslims, 1400 years ago. Salafis are considered a minority in Tunisia, but what makes them hard to manage is that they have rejected the democratic process.

NPR's Leila Fadel continues our series.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (chanting in foreign language)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: At a recent protest outside the justice ministry in Tunis, hundreds of Salafis condemned the Islamist-led government as oppressors.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (chanting in foreign language)

FADEL: The rally was called to demand the release of some 900 Salafis arrested for various acts of violence. Two of those detainees have since died in their cells after long hunger strikes. Unlike their counterparts in Egypt, the Salafis in Tunis reject democracy and insist that only their rigid interpretation of Islamic law can govern Muslims.

Almost all Salafis boycotted the first post-revolutionary elections after Tunisia's dictator was ousted. This has put Tunisia's moderate Islamist leaders in a difficult position. To the secular elite, the government is too soft on the Salafis, while the Salafis accuse the government of selling out the purest form of Islam.

SAID FERJANI: They are entitled to their rights. As long as they respect the law of the land and they behave as citizens. They don't have the right to impose their lifestyle upon anybody by force.

FADEL: That's Said Ferjani, a senior member of the Islamist Ennahda Party that leads the government. The problem with the Salafis, he says, is that they don't recognize the state.

FERJANI: We want to push them, to drag them into the sphere of politics. Because they are citizens.

FADEL: But the few who turn to violence must be prosecuted, Ferjani says.

FERJANI: They are a danger. They are a real danger.

FADEL: The most radical of Salafis, carrying sticks and swords, have attacked cultural events and shrines they consider un-Islamic. They ransacked stores selling alcohol and clashed with the police. Salafi militants are also accused of leading last year's fiery attacks on the U.S. embassy and the American school in Tunis. Secularists like Yassin Brahim accuse the Ennahda-led government of not doing enough to stop the violence because of its sympathies with the Salafis

SECRETARY GENERAL YASSIN BRAHIM: These people are out of the law. If they are arguing for jihad, for violence it is a big problem. And Ennahda has a lot of hesitations about how to manage this problem.

FADEL: Brahim is the secretary general of al Joumhouria, an umbrella party of secularist groups. He says his party's goal is to preserve the image of Tunisian society as moderate and cosmopolitan. Critics of the Salafis say they are a threat to the revolutionary ideals of economic prosperity, civil liberties and gender equality. Tunisia's highest religious figure, the state-appointed Mufti Othman Batikh, goes even further, calling Salafis uncompromising extremists.

MUFTI OTHMAN BATIKH: (Through translator) They accuse people of being infidels. They don't accept dialogue. Such stiffness is what made people reject them. This is all a result of their ignorance of the reality and the history of Islam.

FADEL: Egypt's most successful Salafi political party, Nour, has sent emissaries to Tunisia and Libya to try to coax Salafis into politics. A spokesman for the Egyptian party said that is the only way the Salafis will achieve their ultimate goal of implementing Islamic law.

But Iskander Boughanmi, a young Salafi cleric, says in Tunisia the Salafis are different. They don't believe democracy is the path to god's law.

ISKANDER BOUGHANMI: (speaking in foreign language)

FADEL: Boughanmi accuses the Tunisian government and the media of demonizing Salafis, painting them all as violent militants. Their only crime, he says, is preaching Salafi doctrine. But when we try to spread our message about God's law, he says, they are stopped and they are persecuted. Leila Fadel, NPR News.

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