TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Every Friday, bearded men in shin-length robes demonstrate in Tunisia's capital against perceived insults to Islam in a country once known for its aggressive secularism. They have occasionally turned violent, attacking secular intellectuals and harassing women for their style of dress.
This emerging movement of believers known as Salafis has seemingly appeared out of thin air — and prompted fears of a culture war in this North African country of 10 million.
Since the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 unleashed a string of Arab uprisings, Islam has blossomed in Tunisia in a way it wasn't allowed to do for half a century.
New religious freedoms have also opened the way for the Salafis, who are now in a daily battle for hearts and minds with equally hardline secular elements entrenched in the media and the elite. Television stations, Western embassies and government offices have all felt the conservatives' wrath.
On Friday, hundreds of bearded men and veiled women converged on the public television building accusing it of "sanitizing figures of the old regime" and calling for a purging of staff members who still promote the ideas of the old ruling party.
Caught between the Salafis and the secularists are the moderate Islamists who won Tunisia's first free elections and are trying to build a democratic model for countries that followed Tunisia down this still uncertain revolutionary path.
The Salafis say they are just reclaiming rights long denied.
"Tunisians are thirsty for religious knowledge," said Mohammed Bedoui, a young adherent of the Hizb al-Tahrir, or Liberation party, which calls for the return of the Islamic caliphate. "The regime of Ben Ali neglected the religious universities and the Tunisian imams just can't answer to the demand."
The war of words is taking place against a backdrop of armed radical movements just over the porous borders in neighboring Algeria and Libya, and there are worries that Tunisia's aggressive demonstrations could evolve into an armed struggle if the competing demands are not handled carefully.
Secular intellectuals describe the Salafis as backward and engaging in a wholesale assault against freedom of expression and Tunisia's progressive traditions. The religious conservatives — distinctive with their mustache-less beards, short robes and sneakers — counter that their religion is under daily attack.
"The demonstrations are a response to the provocations of the secularists and the leftists, particularly the polemic against the niqab (face-covering veil) in universities," said Bedoui.
The Salafis cite the broadcast of blasphemous movies, publication of seminude photos of models in newspapers and bans on women wearing the veil as attempts to target and provoke them. They call the secularists leftover supporters of the old dictator.
In one of their most high profile sit-ins, demonstrators stalled exams at a university near Tunis for weeks protesting a ban on female students wearing the niqab during exams.
On Wednesday, fights broke out between leftist student union members and Salafis on the campus, resulting in five injured. At one point, a Salafi student tore down the Tunisian flag and replaced it with a black standard bearing the Muslim profession of faith.
In October's elections, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda dominated the polls, though most believe that people voted for them not out of religious conviction but because they trusted them to do away with the old system and get the country back on track.
Said Ferjani, a high ranking member of Ennahda, told The Associated Press that the last thing they wanted right now was a culture war between the Salafis and what he calls the "secular fundamentalists."
"We are dealing with the business of government, we have floods in the north, a sinking economy and these people are talking about the burqa and the hijab (headscarf)," he said with exasperation. "I don't think they are very grown up."
Those sympathizing with the Salafis' ultraconservative views are estimated to be a small minority — Ferjani suggests just 3 percent of the population — but they are locked in a cycle of provocation and reaction with the secular elite that's spilling out into the streets.
"There is a war of lifestyles, someone from one group wants to impose their lifestyle on the other group," said Ferjani. "They each believe in freedom of speech only for themselves."
During the election campaign, leftist parties tried to paint Ennahda as closet conservatives seeking to drag the country back to the Middle Ages. Voters didn't agree, but now with the rise of the vocal Salafi minority, secularists have found the "bearded menace" they have been looking for.
The secularist opposition maintains that Ennahda not only sympathizes with many of the Salafi positions, but may be actually promoting them.
"Sometimes the line between the Salafis and Ennahda's activists are a bit blurred," said Kamel Labidi, a former journalist now heading the committee rewriting the country's media law.
Under Ben Ali, some of the Salafis joined armed groups that were quickly squashed. But now with Libya next door flush with weapons from the civil war, the means for a new armed rebellion are easily at hand.
On Feb. 2 border guards stopped a car in the south filled with three bearded men at a checkpoint who opened fire with assault rifles before fleeing into nearby olive groves, sparking a major police security operation. Two of the men were shot dead; the third, who was captured, revealed the existence of a violent network with dozens of members across the country.
While such incidents are rare, elements of the Salafi movement have shown a disturbing tendency toward bullying behavior, such as harassing women in smaller towns for not abiding by conservative dress.
In one incident a prominent secular intellectual and a newspaper editor were punched and kicked by a crowd of Salafis protesting outside a courtroom.
Ferjani of Ennahda said that the government is trying a lenient approach with the Salafis so that they aren't further radicalized, attempting to address their concerns with education and religious debate rather than just denouncing them as backward.
"If you push these people, you are empowering them," he warned.
Associated Press writer Bouazza ben Bouazza contributed to this story.