By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Watched by residents of the old quarter of Tunis, a court official stepped forward and unlocked the huge wooden doors. From the gloom within, volunteers began to bring out stools and chairs that had gathered dust and cobwebs for half a century.
The school at Tunisia's 8th-century Zaitouna Mosque, one of the world's leading centers of Islamic learning, was closed by independence leader and secularist strongman Habib Bourguiba in 1964 as part of an effort to curb the influence of religion. Its ancient university was merged with the state's Tunis University.
The college reopened its ancient doors to students on Monday, part of a drive by religious scholars and activists to revive Zaitouna's moderate brand of Islam, which once dominated North Africa, and counter the spread of more radical views.
"The return of this religious educational beacon is very important in light of the increased religious extremism that we are living with," said Fathi al-Khamiri, who heads a pressure group that obtained a court order allowing the school to reopen.
"The aim is to restore Zaitouna's educational and religious role in Tunisia and North Africa in order to spread the principles of moderate religion."
Zaitouna once rivaled Egypt's Al Azhar as a centre of Islamic learning, and during the golden age of Islam generations of leading Islamic thinkers studied logic, philosophy, medicine and grammar as well as theology within its walls.
That rich tradition had already begun to atrophy by the time Bourguiba became president in the 1950s. In recent decades, radical religious ideas have spread across the Middle East, partly in response to a perceived attack on Islam by the West.
Last year's revolution ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Bourguiba's successor, who locked up thousands of Islamists during his 23-year rule. Since then, the moderate Islamist Ennahda party has won elections and now leads the government.
But Salafi Islamists, who follow a puritanical interpretation of Islam, have also become more assertive, alarming secular Tunisians as well as devout Muslims who fear that zealots will try to impose their views by force in a country that is among the most tolerant in the Arab world.
"The only medicine for those extremist rats is the recognition of Tunisia's moderate religion," said one of dozens of residents of the medina (old quarter) who attended the opening.
Behind him, Western tourists wound their way through the narrow alleys of the medina, inspecting the souvenirs on sale.
Khamiri said the staff of the college were currently being assembled and the final curriculum would be announced in the coming weeks. It would ultimately answer to the Ministry of Higher Education, like secular academic institutions.
Dozens of young men and women showed up at the opening to claim a place. At a small table, applications for courses in religion that will include theology, morals and the life of the Prophet Mohammad were piled high. Classes for 18- to 20-year-olds begin next month.
Outside on the steps of the mosque, a group of women, some veiled, were engaged in discussion with a religious scholar who was explaining the history of Zaitouna.
"I've brought my daughter to register to protect her against the prevailing benighted ideas, so she knows that Islam protects women's' rights and does not take away her freedoms, as some of these extremists are trying to convince us," said one woman, as her daughter filled in an application form.
"This ... will spread openness, moderation and tolerance among young people and is the key to distancing them from extremists who may lead them to jihadist groups that bear arms..."
Twenty-six-year-old Shamseddine Eshi, who had been listening in, interrupted to reinforce the point.
"Zaitouna's open ideas are as far as you can get from Wahhabi and Salafi ideas," he said, referring to an austere approach to Islam practised in Saudi Arabia.
"Here at Zaitouna, the moderation of the scholars and their high morals are the best protection against extremism."
(Writing by Lin Noueihed; editing by Tim Pearce)