Islamists pray during a protest outside the parliamentary building in Tunis
Islamists pray during a protest outside the parliamentary building in Tunis December 3, 2011. Thousands of Tunisian Islamists and secularists staged parallel protests outside the interim parliament on Saturday in a dispute over how big a role Islam should play in society after the country's "Arab Spring" revolution. REUTERS

Thousands of Tunisian Islamists and secularists warred outside the interim parliament on Saturday, rallying against extremism as lawmakers draft a new constitution for Tunisia.

About 3,000 Islamists gathered outside the constitutional assembly in the Bardo district of Tunis on Saturday, separated by a police cordon from a counter-protest by approximately 1,000 secularists, Reuters reported.

In October, the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, which was banned for decades, won power in the nation's first free elections. But tensions between the Islamists and the secularists have been high since the revolt in January that led to the elections.

The two groups shouted insults at each other outside the Bardo Palace, where the new constitution is being drawn up; the protest is partly a response to demonstrations going on at a university outside the campus in which the Islamists are demanding the segregation of sexes in classes and for the right for female students to wear a full-faced veil.

The Islamists maintain that the secularist elite are still restricting their freedom to express their faith. Their opponents counter that the Islamists are trying to impose an Islamic state in what has been one of the Arab world's most liberal states, Reuters reported.

The Islamists want to use the constitution to take power, and stage a coup d'etat against democracy, said Raja Dali, a secularist protester.

On Saturday, the constituent assembly, which is working to chart a new course for Tunisia, issued a statement pleading for calm.

Tunisia is going through a very sensitive phase where the priority is the establishment of a democratic regime and of a fair economic system. And this requires us to refrain from anything that could stir tensions and instability, the statement said.

An Ennahda spokesman, Noureddine Bhiri, whose party denied being behind the Islamist rally, made face to also bring calm to the situation. Ennahda appears to be between a rock and a hard place as it attempts to defend the rights of Muslims to express their faith, while at the same time not coming across to secularists and Westerners as only appealing to Islamist hardliners.

Saturday's protest was the first time that both groups had staged simultaneous protests.