PARIS (Reuters) - Demonizing ultra-conservative Salafi Islamists is a mistake that will only lead to them eventually winning power, said the leader of Tunisia's ruling Islamist Ennahda party, Rachid Ghannouchi.
Secular opposition politicians in Tunisia said last week that a leaked video of a secret meeting between Ghannouchi and puritanical Salafis showed the government was not the moderate Islamist force it claimed to be.
Dismissing those claims, Ghannouchi told French daily Le Monde that Tunisia should learn from past mistakes, when cracking down on opposition forces radicalized them and emboldened some to try to overthrow the government.
Some elements within Salafi movements should be allowed to participate in Tunisia's transition toward democracy as long as they act within the law.
"One must distinguish between the fundamentalists that turn to violence and the others," Ghannouchi said in remarks published on Thursday. "If we demonize the Salafis, then in 10 or 15 years they will be in power."
Tunisia, where an uprising against secular strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali provided the first spark in last year's "Arab Spring" revolts, is now ruled by an Islamist-led government that has promised not to impose strict Muslim rules and to respect women's rights.
Liberals say policies touted by Salafis threaten human rights in a country once seen as a beacon of Arab secularism, but which is now under siege from religious hardliners who have attacked cinemas and artistic performances, arguing that they violate Islam.
In a video aired last week, Ghannouchi is heard discussing which parts of the state have fallen into the hands of Islamists and advising Salafis on where they should focus their efforts to spread their influence further.
Ghannouchi said the recording had been taken out of context and manipulated by opposition parties to influence Tunisian and Western public opinion to destroy the idea that there could be a distinction between moderate Islam and radical Islam.
"They wanted to put the two in the same bag," he said, adding the meeting was an attempt to persuade Salafis to work peacefully for change within a political framework.
Salafis also led an attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis last month that killed four people, after an anti-Islam film made in California sparked anger across the region.
Human Rights Watch said on Monday the government was failing to crack down on Islamist violence against advocates of secularism including journalists and artists.
Ghannouchi said that those events had been significant, but not enough to transform Tunisian political life.
"Despite what is said, there is no impunity," he said. "It's a dangerous and complex phenomenon that stems from a mix of religious, political and social factors."
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Jon Hemming)