Religious and leftist students fought running battles at a Tunisian university Wednesday in the latest incident involving rising religious sentiment in the North African country.
Competing demonstrations in the morning by hundreds of conservative students, known as Salafists, and leftist members of the national students’ union erupted into violence when the former tore down the national flag flying at the university entrance.
The Salafis students replaced the Tunisian flag with their own black standard bearing the Muslim profession of faith.
The state news agency reported that five students were injured in the clashes, which went on and off throughout the day, including three that had to be hospitalized.
Salafi students have been demonstrating at Manouba University near the capital against a policy banning female students from wearing the conservative face veil during classes or exams. They are also demanding a prayer space on campus.
Tunisia’s dictators rigidly promoted a secular ideology and cracked down on any overt expressions of piety, including women’s veils. Since Tunisians overthrew their ruler last year, however, people espousing a more conservative approach to the religion have come out into open – often clashing with leftists.
According to Mohammed Bakhti, spokesman for the Salafi students, they were also demonstrating against an assault on Tuesday on two veiled students by the dean of the faculty of humanities, Habib Kazdaghli.
For his part, Kazdaghli told The Associated Press the accusations were baseless and he was the one attacked.
“One of them barged into my office and attacked me and my books and documents, I had to push her away and I still have bruises from it,” he said.
Five students were also disciplined by the university on Tuesday for attempting to wear the veil, including one given a one-year suspension for praying in class.
Earlier in the year, Salafi students had held a month’s long sit-in in front of the faculty over the veil issue preventing exams from being held.
Kazdaghli, who has become a polarizing figure in the debate, condemned authorities for not intervening to stop the Salafi students.
The moderate Islamist Ennahda party leading the government issued a statement Wednesday condemning the attack on the country’s flag.
“The party also stresses that all must engage in a dialogue in order to achieve the appropriate solutions that guarantee the university’s sanctity and the students’ rights and freedoms,” it said.