KAIROUAN, Tunisia (Reuters) - Waving black flags embossed with Islamic verses, thousands of radical Islamists rallied in the central Tunisian town of Kairouan on Sunday to demand a wider role for religion in a country long considered one of the Arab world's most secular.
Draping their banner from the town's ancient mosque, supporters of Ansar al-Sharia, or the Partisans of Islamic Law, one of the most radical Islamist movements in Tunisia, turned out in a show of force likely to cause alarm among secularists.
In jail or underground before the 2011 uprising that ousted secular strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and launched the Arab Spring, Tunisian Islamists have since become more assertive.
On Sunday, Salafis - followers of a puritanical strain of Sunni Islam - from around Tunisia descended on Kairouan, many wearing long beards, robes and caps.
Several speakers at Ansar al-Sharia's second national conference had been imprisoned on terrorism charges either in Tunisia or in the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.
Speaking to cries of "Allahu akbar", or God is Greatest, de facto leader Saifallah Ben Hussein, better known as Abu Ayadh, presented the movement's vision for a new Tunisia in which the media, education, tourism and commercial sectors would be reformed according to Islamic principles.
"In tourism and commerce ... we say to those who suffer that the solution is to end usury," he told supporters, referring to the payment and receipt of interest, which is banned in Islam.
Abu Ayadh called for the creation of an Islamic trade union to confront the powerful and secular-dominated unions that have clashed repeatedly with the Islamist-led government, but said the movement would rely on dialogue not force.
"To those in charge of tourism in this country, we say that for over a year there has been no attack on a single hotel or a single tourist," he said. "We restrain ourselves. We say this is to be done through preaching."
While Islamists did not play a major role in the revolution, the struggle over the role of religion in government and society has since emerged as the most divisive issue in Tunisian politics.
Salafis want a broader role for sharia in the new Tunisia, alarming secular elites who fear they will seek to impose their views and ultimately undermine Tunisia's nascent democracy.
While the moderate Islamist Ennahda won October elections and now leads the government, it has chosen to rule in coalition with two secular parties and has said it would not seek to impose sharia, to the dismay of the more conservative Salafis.
Sunday's conference had been billed by some secularist newspapers as the moment when Tunisia's Salafis, some of whom have al Qaeda sympathies, would break with Ennahda.
But Abu Ayadh said the Salafis would not clash with other Islamists despite differences in outlook.
"They (secularists) want there to be a break between us and other Muslim currents ... but, no matter how much we differ with other Muslims in this land, our religion prevents this," he said.
Tunisians are mostly Muslim but their country's long secular tradition has been tarnished by association with Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, both dictators.
Islamists were severely repressed under Ben Ali, when men who grew beards or went to the mosque were closely watched. Women were discouraged from hiding their hair let alone their face.
They now say they are practicing their right to express their vision and beliefs as any other Tunisians do.
"We have been waiting for this moment, this freedom for so long. Under Ben Ali, I used to wear an ordinary headscarf but I did not feel free," said one woman, dressed from head to toe in a black veil that revealed only her eyes.
"After the revolution, I felt free to become more religious and the more I get into my religion the more I feel at peace."
Both Salafi men and women at the rally said they did not seek to ban alcohol or impose the veil but would seek to spread Islamic values through preaching and dialogue.
Secular critics fear a gradual encroachment of ever stricter rules, however. They want Ennahda to rein in religious zealots.
"Is it true there are thousands?" asked one shopkeeper, an unveiled young woman, near the mosque in Kairouan. "It is the first time I have seen so many. It is scary."
Editing by Robin Pomeroy