The leader of a long-outlawed Tunisian Islamist party returned home Sunday after two decades in exile, telling the Associated Press that his views are moderate and that his Westward-looking country has nothing to fear.
Rachid Ghanouchi and about 70 other exiled members of Ennahdha, or Renaissance, flew home from Britain two weeks after autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced from power by violent protests. At the airport, thousands of people welcomed him, cheering, shouting "God is great!" and drowning out his attempt to address the crowd with a megaphone.
Ghanouchi rejected any comparison of him to more-radical figures, including the hardline father of the Iranian Revolution.
"Some Western media portray me like [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini, but that's not me," Rachid Ghanouchi told the AP.
During 23 years in power, Tunisia's ousted president cracked down on opponents, including proponents of political Islam, jailing them and sending many into exile. As Tunisian protests over corruption and repression escalated, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14.
With Ben Ali gone, the Ennahdha organization has moved quickly to carve out a place in the political scene, taking part in demonstrations and meeting with the prime minister.
Some Tunisians fear that a revival of Islam could hurt their hard-won gains and quality of life, or inspire an extremist movement like the al-Qaida-linked network that has waged an insurgency in neighboring Algeria.
But, while Ennahdha was branded an Islamic terrorist group by Ben Ali, it is considered moderate by scholars. Experts say Ben Ali used a fear of extreme Islamists to seduce Western allies keen for a bulwark against terrorism in a volatile region, and win their blessing despite widespread repression.
Ghanouchi, 69, left the country as Ben Ali came to power in 1987. In 1991, he was convicted in absentia to life in prison, as were most of the party's leaders. Ben Ali banned the party, accusing it of conspiring to kill him and establish a Muslim fundamentalist state. Ennahdha denied those accusations.
Ghanouchi compared his politics to those of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Despite Erdogan's Islamist roots, he has been widely viewed as a pragmatist largely loyal to the legacy of Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who sought to create a secular, modern state.