PARIS: One of Tunisia's most senior politicians revealed on Monday he was trying to persuade Salafi Islamists to keep pursuing their agenda via legal means despite their discontent that Islamic or sharia law may not feature in the new constitution.
Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the co-founder of the powerful Islamist Ennahda party, repeated his opposition to sharia law but said he was anxious to keep the political peace.
"We have started talks with them (the Salafis). The start is always difficult especially on such sensitive subjects," he said. "I tried to encourage them to work in a legal framework either in associations or in political parties," he told French daily newspaper Le Figaro.
Ennahda said on March 26 it opposed incorporating sharia law into the new constitution, disappointing religious conservatives, including the third largest party in the constituent assembly, who have called in recent weeks for sharia to be the main template for the document.
Ennahda's stance carries weight. Its secretary general, Hamadi Jebali, is prime minister, and the party controls more than 40 percent of the seats in the constituent assembly.
Islamists did not play a prominent role in the 2011 uprising, but a debate over the role of religion in government has since polarised politics in Tunisia.
Salafis are not fully represented by any bloc in the assembly, but have stepped up street protests demanding an Islamic state.
A day before Ennahda's decision to reject sharia law about 8,000 conservative Salafis filled the capital's Habib Bourguiba Avenue, a focal point of the 2011 revolution that sparked uprisings across the Arab world.
"To support sharia (for the constitution) would have legitimised and reinforced the Salafis," said Ghannouchi. "If they aren't happy then tough. What interests me is what's good for Tunisia."
Secularists fear that Ennahda has been too soft on the Salafis who have become more assertive since the revolution, attacking or threatening theatres, cinemas and journalists, and most recently Tunisia's tiny Jewish community.
Ghannouchi said he didn't think the Salafis would resort to violence, saying terror tactics would be disastrous for their movement.
"Most of them think rigidly, but they reject violence and do not accuse Ennahda of apostasy. With them dialogue is possible," he said.