Western media routinely describe Tunisia’s Ennahda party as “moderately Islamist.” The once-banned movement’s own past, however, reveals a tendency to violence, and its current platform raises serious questions about the role of Islam in arguably the Arab world’s most secular state.

Ennahda, or “Renaissance” has its roots in the Islamist university groups that proliferated in the Muslim world’s universities following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The party was officially founded in 1989, two years into the 23-year reign of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

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Two years later Ben Ali banned the party, and over the course of his term jailed tens of thousands of its leaders.

Ennahda was legalized in January of this year, following Ben Ali’s ouster in a month-long popular revolt. One thousand supporters welcomed back the party’s founder and leader, 70-yearold Rachid Ghannouchi, on his return to Tunis from European exile in January.

The Islamist party now appears set to take a majority, or at least a plurality, in the Arab world’s first post-revolutionary elections. Ballots were held Sunday and results are expected the following day.

Ennahda presents itself to outsiders as nonviolent, but the movement’s members have been implicated in both incitement and violent actions against Tunisian and foreign targets.

The party supported the 1979 embassy takeover in Iran, and evidence suggests it was responsible for bombing four tourist hotels in the 1980s. In 1991 its operatives attacked the headquarters of Ben Ali’s party, killing one person and throwing acid in the faces of several others, and that same year Ghannouchi called for attacks on US interests in the Middle East in response to America’s invasion of Iraq in the Gulf War.

Ennahda’s founding ideology was largely shaped by that of Sayyid Qutb, a leading ideologue of the grandfather of all Islamist groups, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Ennahda still maintains ties with the Brotherhood, but the Tunisian party prefers to compare itself with another political model: Turkey’s ruling AK party, which though religious in its founding and nature, has stopped short of calling for the imposition of Shari’a.

In an interview this month, however, Ghannouchi said he supports a “moderate” form of Shari’a that would combine “democracy, which is a Western product, with Islam, which is our own heritage.”

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