TUNIS – Seen as a reformist and a champion of public freedoms, Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's Islamic-leaning Ennahda, sees himself on a mission to advocate "an applied version of Islam".
"There is some confusion in the West about Islamism," Ghannouchi told Reuters.
"Some confuse it with fundamentalism and link it to violence, extremism and takfir" -- the practice of declaring other Muslims infidels.
Ghannouchi's Ennahda party won 41.7 percent of votes in last month's election, the first poll since the ouster of president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in a popular revolution earlier this year.
The election will result in an assembly that will draw up the country's new constitution.
The party says it will not write religion into the country's laws and will focus instead on jobs for the unemployed and justice for all.
Ghannouchi says Ennahda will guarantee individual freedoms, including women's rights.
He compared its approach to that of the Christian Democrats in Europe or United States politicians who invoke God and Christian values while working in a secular democracy.
"We are against the state trying to impose any particular way of life," he said.
"There shouldn't be any law to try to make people more religious. We believe in freedom of religion, including the freedom to change religion."
Ghannouchi was forced into exile in Britain for 22 years because of harassment by Ben Ali's police.
A softly spoken scholar, he dresses in suits and open-necked shirts while his wife and daughter wear the hijab.
Ghannouchi's pragmatic policies are often described as being inspired by the moderate Islamists in Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), but they seem to have been just as influenced by him.
"Tunis has been a center of reformist Islamic thought since the 19th century," said Mustafa Akyol, Turkish author of the recent book "Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty."
"The AKP doesn't have a Ghannouchi," he said, using the name of the ruling party of Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"Neither Erdogan nor (President Abdullah) Gul has written books about reform theology."
A rare theoretician among Islamist politicians, Ghannouchi's reformist writings were translated from Arabic into Turkish and read there as early as the 1980s.
His 1993 book "Public Liberties in the Islamic State" is "better known in Turkey than Tunisia," he said.
It was banned until Ben Ali was ousted by Tunisia's Arab Spring protests in January.
Ghannouchi believes that Islam and democracy fit together as all Islamic laws aim to preserve the universal values of life, religion, property, reason and family.
"When we establish democracy, we see that it achieves many of these aims," Ghannouchi said.
"Anything that promotes these aims is Islamic, even if it is not called Islamic.
"That's why we say that Islam and democracy are compatible."
Radwan Masmoudi, Tunisian-born director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) in Washington, said democracy was the most suitable political system for putting Ghannouchi's interpretation of Islam into practice.
"There are Islamic values that are universal and the state should uphold, such as justice, freedom and equality," he told Reuters.
"For that you need a separation of powers and an independent judiciary. Those are secular values."
Another pillar of Ghannouchi's thinking -- ijtihad, or reasoned interpretation of Islamic texts -- needs freedom to operate effectively, Masmoudi said.
"You can't practice ijtihad in a dictatorship," he said.
"People used to think we needed to reform Islam to have a democracy. I think we need democracy first, then we can reconcile Islam with modernity."