TUNIS - Hundreds of conservative Salafi Islamists, angered by an art exhibition they believe humiliates Muslims, clashed with police in Tunis early on Tuesday, raising religious tensions in the North African country.
The protesters blocked streets and set tyres alight in the Ettadamen and Sidi Hussein districts of the capital, hurling petrol bombs at security forces who tried to disperse them with tear gas and by firing bullets into the air, witnesses said.
It was not immediately clear if anyone had been hurt but witnesses said the rioters had attacked a court house in Sidi Hussein and tried to burn a police building in Ettadamen.
The clashes come a day after a group of Salafis, who follow a puritanical interpretation of Islam, forced their way into an art exhibition in the upscale La Marsa suburb and defaced works they deemed offensive.
A group of men broke into the venue in the northern suburbs of Tunis overnight Sunday-Monday, slashing several canvases and dismantling one art installation, said the show's director Luca Luccatini.
Earlier Sunday, several men believed to be ultra-conservative Salafist Muslims had turned up presenting themselves as a lawyer and bailiffs and demanding that four works judged "offensive to sacred values" be taken down, he said.
"We called the police because their behaviour was aggressive and they threatened to come back," said Luccatini.
Supporters of the art exhibition later faced off with a group of bearded men dressed in the style of Salafists outside the gallery, which was broken into after it had closed for the day.
As well as the paintings that were destroyed, one installation, called "The Ring" -- which showed the faces of Tunisian women, Jewish and Christian, painted on punching balls -- was dismantled and removed, Luccatini said.
He said he had filed a formal complaint over the incident, which he said smacks of "fanaticism".
The interior ministry said police had seized four works that were attracting controversy in order to keep them safe.
The culture ministry, while saying it supported freedom of creation, denounced what it said were "all kinds of aggression against sacred values" as presented in some of the works on show.
Lamia Guemara, one of the artists whose work was damaged, said: "I feel enormously angry. It's sad that we've come to this."
Last month, Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri threatened to punish Salafist Muslims who push their views on others too hard, after radical Islamists forced a series of bars and shops selling alcohol to close.
But critics of the extremists have denounced the lack of action by the authorities in the face of the sometimes violent moves by Salafists.
Salafi Islamists, some of whom are loyal to al Qaeda, want a broader role for religion in the new Tunisia, alarming secular elites who fear they will seek to impose their views and ultimately undermine the country's nascent democracy.
The clashes come a day after the leader of al Qaeda called on Tunisians to defend Islamic law from Ennahda, the Islamist party that won elections in the North African country in October and has since said it would not seek to impose sharia in the constitution currently being hashed out.
In an audio recording attributed to Ayman al Zawahri and released on few websites, the Qaeda leader said Tunisia’s Ennahda party, which rules with secular parties, had betrayed itself and the religion.
“Have you ever seen a hospital that says it’s not in the business of treating the sick, or a pharmacy that says it’s got nothing to do with selling medicine, or an army that says it’s got no business fighting?” he asked.
“They are inventing an Islam acceptable to the US State Department, the European Union and the Gulf,” he said. “An Islam that permits gambling parlours, nude beaches and usurious banks, secular laws and submission to international law.”
“Come to the aid of your prophet’s (PBUH) customs, and accept no substitute for sharia.”