About 8,000 conservative Salafi Islamists filled the capital’s Habib Bourguiba Avenue, a focal point of the 2011 revolution that sparked uprisings across the Arab world.
Waving black flags, they shouted slogans demanding that Islamic law, or sharia, be defined as the main source of legislation in Tunisia’s new constitution.
“This is not a show of force, but they should know that we can mobilize hundreds of thousands on the streets if they refuse the application of sharia,” said a young man who gave his name as Abu Jihad.
“We are in a Muslim country, so the talk about Islam in the constitution should not be feared.”
While Islamists did not play a prominent role in the 2011 uprising, a struggle over the role of religion in government has since polarized politics in Tunisia.
A constituent assembly elected in October, in the first vote after the revolution ousted secular President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, has about a year to hash out a new constitution.
The moderate Islamist Ennahda party won the election and now heads the government, but has chosen to rule in coalition with two secular parties and has promised not to ban alcohol or impose the veil as some secularists had initially feared.
Secular Tunisians worry, however, that whatever the constitution says, hard-line Salafi Islamists will try to impose their views, pressing women to wear the veil or restaurants to stop serving alcohol, and ultimately turning the Mediterranean tourist destination into a conservative Islamic state.
Before the end of Sunday’s rally, demonstrators marched to Tunisia’s main theatre on Bourguiba Avenue, demanding that it be closed down and threatening to assault actors and artists.
Further alarming secularists, many demonstrators chanted “the people want a Caliphate”, referring to a defunct form of government under which Islamic empires ruled for centuries.
The existing constitution names Islam as the religion of state but not as a source for legislation. The constituent assembly has the power to make the new constitution law if the majority is large enough, otherwise it must go to a referendum.