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Islamist protesters march in Tunisia, riot police fire tear gas

October 14, 2011 |  1:25 pm

REPORTING FROM TUNIS, TUNISIA -- Tunisian riot police fired tear gas at throngs of demonstrators at an Islamist protest in the capital, Tunis. Crowds marched through the streets chanting "God is Great" as some protesters called for an Islamic state. Other demonstrators said they were marching to denounce a Tunisian TV station for airing an animated feature film that critics accuse of blasphemy because it includes an image of God.

"The station and those responsible should be held accountable," a 21-year old student and protester who gave her name as Emna told World Now. She added that she thought the station -- Nessma TV -- deserved to be shut down for showing the cartoon Persepolis, which includes a scene in which God is depicted talking to a young girl. In Islam, it is forbidden to depict Allah.

The Reuters news agency reported that some demonstrators tried to break into the prime minister's office. The report said Friday's protest was the largest demonstration in Tunis staged by Islamists to date.

The protest came as secularists and liberals are worried that Islamic parties will dominate Tunisia's parliamentary elections Oct. 23, the first since the revolution that overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. That uprising inspired revolts across the Arab world.  

Protester Younes Omar, 24, an engineering student, said he felt that the TV station had committed an "aggression" against the Tunisian people by broadcasting the film, which was dubbed into the Tunisian dialect.

"They attacked God, and this channel is addressed to the Tunisian people," Omar said. It would have been different, he argued, had the film been aired on a foreign station in its original language.

The protest began as a peaceful march through the streets of a downtown Tunis neighborhood amid tight security. But as crowds neared the Casbah and the office of caretaker Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi, riot police moved in and fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators, sending protesters and bystanders running down the streets, with some taking cover in nearby buildings.

"This is how they respond, but the message today was passed," said an older man as he held up an empty tear-gas canister left in the streets after the scuffles.

Smaller scuffles between groups and police apparently continued throughout the afternoon in some neighborhoods. Witnesses told World Now that small groups of protesters carrying stones were trying to reach the offices of Nessma TV.

The Tunisian state prosecutor announced Oct. 11 that Nessma TV would be investigated on charges of “defaming” Islam after receiving complaints, according to a news release by Human Rights Watch. The group has called on Tunisia's interim government to drop the investigation.

--Alexandra Sandels


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Photo: Protesters outside the prime minister's office in the Tunisian capital on Oct. 14. Credit: Reuters