TUNIS Tunisia's Islamist-led government will not allow puritanical Salafis to enforce their vision on a country grappling with the role of Islam in a once rigidly secular society, the prime minister said on Tuesday.
"Militants who have used violence are few, but they can not impose their vision on our country and our people. We will not allow them ... Tunisia will remain moderate," Hamadi Jebali, who belongs to the Islamist Ennahda party, said in an interview.
The role of Islam in government and society has emerged as the most divisive issue in Tunisia in the wake of an uprising two years ago that sparked "Arab Spring" revolts that have empowered Islamists throughout the region.
But Salafis have emerged as an influential force, attacking cinemas and artistic performances, arguing that they violated Islam. They also led an attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis that killed four people after a film mocking Islam made in California sparked anger in September across the region.
"We will face religious fanaticism through law and be strict with all violators without exception, but we will address the root cultural and social causes by combating poverty and creating jobs," Jebali said.
Ennahda, which rules with two junior government partners, is accused by liberals of sympathy with the Salafis in a country that was seen as a beacon of Arab secularism in the post-colonial period.
Those concerns were exacerbated by a video that surfaced last month in which Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi is heard discussing which parts of the state have fallen into the hands of Islamists and advising Salafis on where they should focus their efforts to spread their influence further.
Jebali said secular critics of Ennahda were going too far in their criticism, accusing both Salafis and liberal elites of harming the country's economy and image through their conflict with each other. Ennahda has tried to present itself as a middle way between liberals and Salafis.
The Islamist-led government must tread a delicate line between conservatives who see the revolution as a chance to express a religious identity suppressed by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia in January 2011, and secularists who want to broaden freedom of expression.
"I think some of the (secular) political elite are more dangerous than Salafis because at least with extremists we can control the phenomenon, while the abuse of the political elites is immense," he said.
"They are targeting our relations with Qatar ... and Turkey, claiming that we are loyal to the 'east', though when we signed a preliminary agreement to have the rank of privileged partner with European Union they attacked us for that too."
"These attacks won't destroy the government, but they could destroy the democratic transition in Tunisia," Jebali added.
Ennahda is part of a wave of allied Islamist movements that have come to power in the region since the uprisings, following the example of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK party.
Qatar, the Gulf Arab country that has become a major diplomatic power in recent years, has done much to promote the Islamist movements, promoting them on its leading satellite channel Al Jazeera and facilitating their acceptance in the West.
(Writing by Tarek Amara and Andrew Hammond; Editing by Alison Williams)