By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian police fired tear gas to disperse several thousand Islamists trying to force their way into the prime minister's office on Friday, the biggest in a series of clashes that are overshadowing next week's landmark election.
Tunisia was the birthplace of the "Arab Spring" uprisings against repressive autocrats, but its election on October 23 has unleashed a sometimes violent debate between Islamists and secularists about what role religion should have in society.
Friday's protest started peacefully, with more than 10,000 people shouting "Allahu Akbar!" or "God is greatest!" and demanding the imposition of Islamic law in Tunisia. It was the largest protest to date by Islamists in the capital.
When the crowd approached the Casbah, where caretaker Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi has his office, some groups tried to break through police lines, according to a Reuters reporter at the scene.
Riot police unleashed tear gas and moved in with batons to try to scatter the crowd. The protesters responded by throwing stones at police before spreading out into neighboring streets.
"Our protest was peaceful," said one man, who gave his name as Omar. Like many of the protesters, he is a Salafist, a follower of a particularly strict interpretation of Islam who often have long beards and wear robes.
"But they (the police) used a lot of force against us to try to show that we are violent," he said.
Over an hour after the violence broke out, there were still smaller confrontations around the center of Tunis, as groups which split off from the main protest clashed with police.
One group was on the Mohamed V boulevard, just north of the city center, and was trying to reach the offices of a local television station, witnesses said. It had broadcast a film which religious conservatives said violated Islamic rules.
One protester in the center of Tunis shouted: "Here in Tunisia you can insult Allah but you cannot insult Sebsi or the government ... and if you do, you pay dearly. That's not right."
Tunisia electrified the Arab world in January when mass protests overthrew President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Its revolution inspired uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Yemen that have reshaped the political landscape of the Middle East.
The North African country will vote on October 23 for an assembly which will draft a new constitution. The vote is set to be Tunisia's first genuinely democratic election.
But it has also fueled tension between Islamists who are free for the first time to express their faith and secularists who believe their modern, liberal values are under threat.
Islamists clashed with police last week in a suburb of Tunis after the broadcast of the award-winning animated film "Persepolis." It contains a scene in which Allah is depicted, something which is forbidden in Islam.
(Reporting By Tarek Amara; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Mark Heinrich)