|Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi flies back to his homeland today after over 20 years of exile - his imminent arrival is symbolic of many Tunisians banished from their homeland [Reuters]
Flight BA 2886 has set on its cruise to Tunis. As if God's hands have released a bird into the open sky, joyfully gliding through the air.
As if reflecting a flying bird's wings, tender exilic souls are fluttering in that British Airlines flight to Tunis. They are excited by the fear of return after a long absence to a newly liberated Tunis - the joy of inhaling the air of freedom after the ouster of Ben Ali.
Returning from a long banishment in Europe and Britain is a dream come true. Unthinkable, four weeks ago.
In that flight sits the awaited exiled Islamist leader Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, a good number of his Nahda Party companions, and myself. To say the journey is like a prodigal son's return to a motherland not seen for twenty years for some - for me, thirty years - is an understatement.
What are Ghannouchi's inner thoughts and feelings? What kind of leader is returning to Tunisia? With what aspirations?
Ghannouchi is no Khomeini
Ghannouchi's happening is not like Khomeini's.
However, like Khomeini, he will be departing from the city of exile into a freed country - Khomeini's famous flight on February 1, 1979, aboard Air France.
Shiite Persian Iran compares with Sunni Arab Tunisia only in the type of Westernisation that advocates of a nation-building sensitive to Islam have traditionally opposed.
But how much sensitivity? How much Islam? And what brand of Islam?
That is where Ghannouchi differs from Imam Khomeini, literally a Muslim revolutionary whose overthrow of the Shah fired up the imagination of Muslim revivalists - including Ghannouchi and friends who, by that time, began to organise and mobilise in the name of Islam against Francophile Bourguiba.
Indeed, both operate in the shadow of the Noble Book, the Quran, but with a notable difference. Khomeini's theology imbibed in the seminaries of the holy cities Najaf and Qum led him to invent a brilliant instrument to end the millennial quietism and occlusion of Shiite Islam: the guardianship of the learned scholars. In other words, clerical rule.
Ghannouchi does not even refer to an Islamic state, much less activation of Islamic law in the realm of politics. He is a sheikh like no other in the wide spectrum of political Islam.
This is a constant in Ghannouchi's thinking, which I documented whilst doing my doctoral thesis in the early 1990s on comparative political Islam, and through the frequent circles my British students and I hosted for Ghannouchi to explain his brand of political Islam.
Ghannouchi and democracy
Ghannouchi is a brilliant doctor of how Islam can be wedded to modernity or democracy.
Very few ideologues approximate his critical mind. Maybe only the genius of Hassan al-Turabi of Sudan and the late Muhammad Hassan Fadhlallah of Lebanon inspire with superior originality and perspicacity in argumentation and evidence.
On December 14, in the midst of one of our circles, Ghannouchi startled a student whose sympathies lay with Hizb al-Tahrir - who argued the case of a caliphate as preferable to democracy - that only through a democracy will Muslims choose to live under such a structure as it cannot be superimposed without the practise of consultation, or shura.
Ghannouchi's key thesis in his seminal Public Freedoms in Islam enacts citizenship through free choice and voluntarism.
Basically, if a given Muslim populace votes a communist party into power, then Muslims must obey the popular verdict and work harder to create the ideal Muslim society that would eventually vote into office Islamists.
Ghannouchi, in the steps of mentors such as Malik Bennabi, believes in the worthiness of human beings and the fashioning of politics as a shared space for endless legal and peaceful contests.
His only condition for Muslim democracy to flourish is the sharing of the immutable principles of Islam as a shared set of values. Apart from this, all else is up for grabs, including the vast areas requiring independent human reasoning - according to context - and also issues on which Islam says nothing.
Perhaps this is why Ghannouchi, in my view, has devised some modest solutions to integrating Islam into modernity and Islamising modernity, rather than pretending that 'Islam is the solution', the revivalists' standard slogan.
The lost generation
In that plane, Ghannouchi is accompanied by members of a lost generation that now-ousted Ben Ali's cruelty condemned to misery, loss, and ghorba - the Arabic term for spatial exile away from the homeland but also exile within, the psychological effects of infliction with forced deracination.
Many have become hybrid citizens of the world. Many roamed several countries, some spent months and years stuck between borders and frontiers without legal papers, some with false ones.
Many were piles of a human wreck after suffering the ignominy of torture of all kinds, a speciality of Arab regimes uncritically supported for a long time by Western governments.
Ghannouchi himself, until recently, has had only laissez-passer travel documents. The French banned him from entering their soil. As at some time or another did the Egyptians, the Lebanese and recently even the Saudis, who today provide sanctuary for Ben Ali.
This is not specific to Tunisian exiles. All kinds of Arab exiles fleeing brutality in their own homelands have lived the experience of inner exile. They flee the homeland. But the homeland they flee lives for ever within them.
Many return to depleted families where the elders will be missing and dearly missed.
Worn out by exile and the stigma of being 'radicals', under surveillance, tacked in many European countries, profiled, assumed to be potential threat, they have turned towards one another for camaraderie, warmth, support and affection to cope with scars that may never heal.
It is one reason why Western indifference to authoritarianism stings, benumbs and stupefies.
Recently in Doha, Ghannouchi felt as if he were suffering withdrawal symptoms: Ben Ali is still a nightmare in the slumber of Tunisia's lost generation.
When awake they cannot believe he is gone for good. I know when Ghannouchi lands in Tunis, the lump he described in his throat will finally burst into rivers of tears.
I know not whether he will kiss the floor, symbolically, as did Khomeini when he finally got off his triumphant flight in Tehran.
But Tunisia's soil will be printing kisses on the feet of its returning sons and daughters condemned to prolonged, unjust exile.
Thank you, Bou'azizi
Ghannouchi and the Islamists returning on that flight with him will be thanking no one but the courage of a people that vowed to reclaim its sovereignty through the unsung heroes from Bou'azizi, a new Facebook and Twitter generation, freedom marchers and protesters, and a whole people. They planted a seed of a better future and durable democracy.
So Ghannouchi knows that the Tunisia he is returning to is the Tunisia he left more than 20 years ago.
They rap. They make music that did not exist when he left. Yet they sing for freedom. They are prepared to challenge authority. Now they have a precedent in the people's power revolt, which they will deploy again if ignored. They have inspired Egyptians and other fellow Arabs to do the same.
He is returning humbled by the greatness of this generation.
Whether his brand of soft Islamism can communicate with this new generation remains to be seen. He has invented his own ideograms of how to re-read political Islam and they have invented their own idioms and horizons of how to re-read politics and politicians.
Ghannouchi returns not to dominate power but to share it.
Back in Doha, the gist of our conversation was that whilst for him Islam is not to be discarded as a repository of laws and ethics, he understands that in a genuine democracy, functional and democratic politics cannot be bounded by single and fixed ideological horizons.
His Nahda party will be a very good approximation of Turkey's AKP. That is, it accepts Tunisia's personal status code and the place of women as free agents in society; it is congenial with reciprocal and equal coexistence with the West; and it is adamant that a non-clerical brand of political Islam can live with secular democratic politics.
As flight BA 2886 overflies the azure waters of the Bay of Tunis, approaching the land of verdure - as Tunisia is known in the Arab world - wells of saltiness will flow down on the faces of men and women as if to wash out the pain of separation, cleanse all feelings for vengeance, and as if to water the seeds of a new beginning, whose jasmine scent is wafting further afield, awakening the free to march against the tyrants of the Arab world.
Larbi Sadiki is a senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.