Ambiguous religion policy backfires on Tunisia's ruling Islamists

Ambiguous religion policy backfires on Tunisia's ruling Islamists
An anti-government protester shouts slogans as others wave flags and signs during a demonstration at Kasbah Square where the government headquarters are located, to call for the departure of the Islamist-led ruling coalition, in Tunis August 31, 2013.

TUNIS - The young man at the entrance to Zitouna, the oldest mosque in the Tunis medina, was adamant. Non-Muslims could no longer enter the building, not even just its outside gallery overlooking the busy souk.

"You can only come in if you declare, 'There is no god but God and Mohammad is God's messenger'," he said - effectively making conversion to Islam the new admission ticket to a monument that used to welcome non-Muslim visitors.

Hardline views like these have spread through Tunisia in the past two years as radical Muslims seized control of about a fifth of all mosques, attacked westernised liberals and tried to impose their puritan ideas on one of the most secular Arab societies.

The governing party Ennahda, which formally advocates a democratic form of Islamism, long treated the radicals mildly, seeing them as informal allies in reclaiming Islam's place in the small North African country.

But two assassinations of secular politicians this year widely blamed on militant Islamists alienated many Tunisians and united the secular opposition parties, powerful trade unions and other civil society groups against Ennahda.

"Ennahda now realises the Salafis are very unpopular and it has to accept the opposition demand for new elections," said Alaya Allani, a historian of Islamism at Manouba University near Tunis. "It will not be the majority party after the next polls."

Geoffrey Howard, North Africa analyst at the Control Risks consultancy, said Ennahda was now far below the 37 per cent it polled in Tunisia's first democratic election in 2011. "The party has been severely damaged by the latest crisis."

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