On September 14, hundreds of radical Islamists angered by a US-made film mocking their religion attacked the US embassy in Tunis and a neighbouring American school in a day of violence that left four people dead and dozens wounded.
On the same day, away from the media spotlight, a smaller group of Salafists invaded the Sufi lodge in the nearby Cap Bon peninsula, shouting threats and tearing arte facts from the walls.
“They removed the pictures on the walls, the verses from the Koran. I fled because they said to me, ’That one, we will kill him,’” recalls Houcine, the guardian of the tomb of Abdelkader Jilani, a holy man revered by followers of this mystical Islamic sect.
He casts a sorrowful eye at iconography piled up on the floor.
The doors of the 230-year-old tomb have since been shut, and where hundreds of devotees once came on Thursdays to solicit the blessings of Sidi Abdelkader, praying to be healed or to find a loving partner, they now stay away.
Sheikh Mustapha Limame, who owns the lodge or “zawiya,” fears for its future.
“The future is in the hands of God. I want things to return to normal… But I am afraid for the zawiya. They have threatened to burn it,” he says.
The sheikh alerted the police to the attack but refrained from filing a complaint “to avoid complications,” he explains, and so the lodge remains unprotected.
Since the early centuries of Islam, Sufi orders have always aroused suspicion among orthodox Muslims.
And while ultra-orthodox Salafists strongly denied being behind the attack, they admitted to blocking access to what they call a place of “archaic” and “blasphemous” beliefs, where people bow down before a saint and not before God.
The Sufis, in their view, are completely misguided, practising magic, using holy water that is contaminated by drains and committing “lecherous” acts.
“I swear to you in the name of God that I have witnessed scenes of nudity, of vice, of lechery!” insists Imed Ayari, the imam of the adjoining mosque.
“If people come here… I tell them to go to the mosque,” adds Ayari, who has put up a large banner advising Muslims not to pray in the tomb.
Members of Tunisia’s militant Salafist movement are thought to number between 3,000 and 10,000, and have been implicated in numerous acts of violence that the country has witnessed since last year’s revolution.
The Islamist-led coalition government has been strongly criticised for failing to clamp down on the extremists, who Tunisia’s secular President Moncef Marzouki has warned pose a “great danger” to the region.
Officials at the ministry of religious affairs say they are aware of the problem and acknowledge an upsurge in attacks on Sufi monuments.
But Sadok Arfaoui, the official in charge of places of worship, says both sides have a part to play in resolving the problem, and describes the fears of some Sufis over filing complaints as “unjustified.”
“People’s passive acceptance has encouraged these groups to continue their violent behaviour.”
Arfaoui stresses that attacks on Sufi targets are part of a bigger problem, namely the illegal occupation of some 100 mosques around Tunisia, including Menzel Bouzelfa, by Salafist hardliners “known for their violence and stupidity.”
“The state is facing a complex phenomenon, and it can’t just take the view that security is the solution… Our response to this trend will be educational, based on dialogue. We will ask (the Salafists) to be more tolerant,” he said.
But while this message of tolerance lies at the heart of Sufi beliefs, it is unlikely to meet with much sympathy from Menzel Bouzelfa’s fundamentalist imam.
“To be clear, religious differences can exist, but only at a secondary level, not in its essence, and here we are talking about an essential aspect of faith,” Imed Ayari insisted.