KAIROUAN, Tunisia -- On the Friday after Tunisia's president fell, Mohamed al-Khelif mounted the pulpit of this city's historic Grand Mosque to deliver a full-throttle attack on the country's corrupt culture, to condemn its close ties with the West and to demand that a new constitution implement Shariah, or Islamic law.
"They've slaughtered Islam!" thundered Dr. Khelif, whom the ousted government had barred from preaching for 20 years. "Whoever fights Islam and implements Western plans becomes in the eyes of Western politicians a blessed leader and a reformer, even if he was the most criminal leader with the dirtiest hands."
Mosques across Tunisia blazed with similar sermons that day and, indeed, every Friday since, in what has become the battle of the pulpit, a heated competition to define Tunisia's religious and political identity.
Revolution freed the country's estimated 5,000 officially sanctioned mosques from the rigid controls of the previous government, which appointed every prayer leader and issued lists of acceptable topics for their Friday sermons.
That system pushed a moderate, apolitical model of Islam that avoided confronting a dictator. When the system collapsed last year, ultraconservative Salafis seized control of up to 500 mosques by government estimates. The government, a proponent of a more temperate political Islam, says it has since wrested back control of all but 70 of the mosques, but acknowledges it has not yet routed the extremists nor thwarted their agenda.
"Before, the state suffocated religion -- they controlled the imams, the sermons, the mosques," said Sheik Tai'eb al-Ghozzi, the Friday Prayer leader at the Grand Mosque here. "Now everything is out of control -- the situation is better but needs control."
To this day, Salafi clerics like Dr. Khelif, who espouse the most puritanical, most orthodox interpretation of Islam, hammer on favorite themes that include putting Islamic law into effect immediately, veiling women, outlawing alcohol, shunning the West and joining the jihad in Syria. Democracy, they insist, is not compatible with Islam.
"If the majority is ignorant of religious instruction, then they are against God," said Sheik Khatib al-Idrissi, 60, considered the spiritual guide of all Tunisian Salafis. "If the majority is corrupt, how can we accept them? Truth is in the governance of God."
The battle for Tunisia's mosques is one front in a broader struggle, as pockets of extremism take hold across the region. Freshly minted Islamic governments largely triumphed over their often fractious, secular rivals in postrevolutionary elections. But those new governments are locked in fierce, sometimes violent, competition with the more hard-line wing of the Islamic political movements over how much of the faith can mix with democracy, over the very building blocks of religious identity. That competition is especially significant in Tunisia, once the most secular of the Arab nations, with a large educated middle class and close ties to Europe.
The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, and its ability to reconcile faith and governance may well serve as a barometer for the region.
Some analysts link the assertive Tunisian Salafi movement to what they consider a worrying spread of violent extremism across North Africa -- including an affiliate of Al Qaeda seizing control of northern Mali; a murderous attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya; a growing jihadi force facing Israel in the Sinai; and a mob looting an American school and parts of the United States Embassy in Tunis.
Senior government officials said the various groups share an ideology and are in contact with one another, suggesting that while they are scattered and do not coordinate their operations, they reinforce one another's agendas. There have been several episodes of jihadists caught smuggling small arms from Libya to Mali or Algeria across Tunisia, for example, including two small trucks packed with Kalashnikovs and some manner of shoulder-fired missiles or grenades in June, said Ali Laarayedh, the interior minister.
President Moncef Marzouki and several ministers blamed the domestic spread of Islamic extremism on the ousted government, saying it created a vacuum by gutting traditional religious education over the past 50 years. Mr. Marzouki estimated that the number of violent extremists was only about 3,000, but he acknowledged that they were a growing menace to national security.
Aside from a few "zealous" leaders, most are misguided youths, said Mr. Laarayedh, the interior minister. Critics find their potential for violence unsettling, and repeated episodes -- security forces shot dead a young Salafi in a confrontation last week -- play havoc with the image of a country dependent on tourism.
The government, dominated by the Renaissance Party, is struggling to contain the problem without resorting to the brutal methods of the toppled dictatorship. It has jailed about 800 Salafis, said Samir Dilou, the human rights minister, and arrests of those advocating violence accelerated after protesters looted the American Embassy compound on Sept. 14 in response to a video mocking the Prophet Muhammad.
The word Salafi encompasses a broad spectrum of Sunni fundamentalists whose common goal is resurrecting Islam as practiced by the Prophet Muhammad when he founded the faith in the seventh century. Salafis range from peaceful proselytizers to those who spread Islam by force.
In Kairouan, 100 miles south of Tunis, Salafis control 5 of the city's 35 mosques, said Sheik Ghozzi, the Grand Mosque's prayer leader.
"The Salafis find themselves empowered because they have not faced any resistance from the government," said Sheik Ghozzi, 70, a slight man wearing a short-cropped gray robe. Without a "strict" reaction, along with dialogue, they will become "a danger to the state," he said.
The Grand Mosque, a sandstone citadel, reflects the martial origins of Kairouan, the capital of the first Muslim army to capture North Africa. It is Tunisia's oldest mosque.
Sheik Ghozzi and other critics accuse the extremists of pushing a far less tolerant version of Islam than that long practiced in Tunisia. Salafi prayer leaders recruit young men to die fighting in Syria, he said, although Islam forbids killing other Muslims.
Salafis repeatedly try to chase tourists from the Grand Mosque; have threatened to level the popular shrine of Sidi Sahbi, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad buried here, although so far they have only fought with worshipers trying to pray there; and imported Saudi Arabian clerics who demanded that Tunisians confront the West. At some mosques, traditional prayer leaders were threatened with beatings or even death if they did not leave, Sheik Ghozzi said. In others, the locks were changed to bar them.
In a few towns, the struggle degenerated into brawls with sticks and fists. The Salafists have also enforced Islamic law on their own. In Sidi Bouzeit this September, a group of about 70 Salafists sacked the only hotel in town that sold alcohol, shattering its outdoor fountains by heaving full cases of beer into them.
"They want their own imams who use their words, who speak their language," Sheik Ghozzi said. "They want someone who calls for jihad, who tells them to go fight in other countries, who curses the Shiites and who calls on them to go out to defend the Koran by force."
It was worshipers who asked Dr. Khelif not to return after that first Friday, Sheik Ghozzi said.
But Dr. Khelif, 60, a pediatrician and the son of a famous Grand Mosque imam, said only misguided Tunisians consider his preaching somehow foreign.
"Islam is the Islam that was revealed to the prophet -- it was not Islam revealed to my father or any other Tunisian father," he said, speaking in his clinic, pictures of the Grand Mosque mingled on the walls with Walt Disney characters. Dr. Khelif, who has grown a long, shaggy white beard and assumed the duties of prayer speaker at another mosque since the revolution, denied that any Salafi preachers occupied mosques by force. Worshipers are free to pray elsewhere, he noted.
In a show of strength, the Salafi movement organized a huge rally at the Grand Mosque last May, drawing tens of thousands of followers from around Tunisia who voiced frustration at the slow pace of applying Islamic law.
But Nourredine Khadmi, the minister of religious affairs, said that his ministry was in the process of evaluating potential new imams and that he had appointed some 2,000 imams since January. "By winter, everything will be stable," he said in an interview, though last spring he predicted it would be by August.
"It is a difficult problem to resolve," said Abdelfattah Mouru, a Renaissance Party founder and himself the victim of several physical attacks by young Salafis. "You need either public opinion or a public force. You cannot dispatch the police into the mosques to put them in order, it is impossible, it is both immoral and against the religion."
In Tunis in October, five men set fire to the shrine of Leila Manoubia, a 13th-century saint. Young Tunisian women wrote their names on the walls if they wanted to get married or pregnant. Salafis condemn such prayers as idolatry, although who attacked the shrine remains unconfirmed.
"I want Tunisia to be a place where a woman can wear a veil or not, where we can pray or not," said Asma Ahmadi, 34, who said she started visiting the shrine at age 15 and considers it as much about tradition as religion.
"They are trying to break the mystical balance between tradition and religion in Tunisia," she said. "They are trying to burn our identity to replace it with something we don't know."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.