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updated 1/22/2011 12:35:09 PM ET 2011-01-22T17:35:09

Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda movement is democratic and should not be feared, its exiled leader said on Saturday, rejecting any comparison between him and Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The Tunisian government said this week that it would lift a ban on political groups including the Ennahda, or Renaissance, movement, which was suppressed during the 24-year rule of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali who fled a week ago.

"We are a moderate Islamic movement, a democratic movement based on democratic ideals in ... Islamic culture. Some people pull Khomeini's robe over me, while I am no Khomeini nor a Shi'ite," Rached Ghannouchi told Al Jazeera television.

Asked about hardliners who dismiss Western-style democracy and call for the creation of a traditional Islamic state, he said: "Our position is very far from this idea, ... which we think has no place within the moderate Islamist tendency. It is extremist and ... not based on a correct interpretation of Islam."

Analysts say moderate Islamists in Tunisia may attract many followers after the overthrow of Ben Ali, while militants may be able to infiltrate from neighboring Algeria, which has long fought Islamic hardliners.

Secularism has been strictly enforced in Tunisia since before its independence from France in 1956. Habib Bourguiba, an independence leader and long-time president, was a nationalist who considered Islam a threat to the state.

In 1987, when Ben Ali pushed aside Bourguiba, he briefly freed Islamists and allowed them to run in the 1989 elections. Ennahda, Tunisia's largest Islamist movement, officially won 17 percent of the vote, coming second to the ruling party.

Shi'ite leader Khomeini led the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the shah's pro-Western government in Iran. Most Arab countries have populations that predominantly belong to Islam's dominant Sunni branch.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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