Is Islamic Fundamentalism as an Ideology Threatening Liberal Democracy?

Guest Post by Shingirai Robson Nyahwa

Religious fundamentalism is a set of strategies by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group in response to a real or imagined attack from those who it appears want to draw the religious believers into syncretistic or irreligious cultural milieus. Hence Islamic fundamentalism is a conservative religious movement that seeks to a return to Islamic value and Islamic laws (sharia) in the face of western modernism which is seen as corrupt and atheistic. On the other hand liberal democracy is a phrase often used to describe western democratic political systems which is propounded by philosophers such as Rawls, Rousseau and Locke. It emphasizes the right of individuals which are inalienable and which the government cannot infringe upon. Therefore from the above definitions it can be deduced that to a larger extent Islamic fundamentalism is incompatible with liberal democracy, hence threatening its existence. Islamic fundamentalism is inconsistent with the universal declaration of human rights of 1948, which is the cornerstone of liberal democracy. Chief amongst them are universal, civil, and political rights and equality before the law. However to a lesser extent Islamic fundamentalism is slowly but surely adopting some elements of liberal democracy such as public participation in political systems as well as holding of elections in countries such as Egypt, Iran, and Iraq

The origins of Islamic fundamentalism are still shrouded with a lot of historical controversy, however the main current political Islamic fundamentalism in the middle east is based on the Muslim brotherhood founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al Baum and exported to other  countries. The brotherhood grew into mass movement across the region in the 1960s. It condemns the separation of the state and religion and aims to establish a theocratic state.1 Today Islamic fundamentalism has spread in the Middle East and western Africa. According to Wright,2 the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism was inspired by colonialism and modernisation. Colonialism resulted in western culture dominance which imposed secularisation, dependence and diversion of life into separate secular religious fears. Fundamentalist movement is viewed as an expression in Islamic idiom as a deep resentment felt by many Muslims against much western political and cultural domination and its attendant modernism and secularism perceived as threats to Muslim guidance and practical help to those experiencing frustration in their societies. Hence, a clash of civilizations as Huntington puts it.
The tension between religion and democracy is as old as political philosophy itself as Gunderson (2004) alleges, it can be recalled that the democratic Athens brought Socrates to trial on two charges, corrupting of minds of the young and religious impiety, it remains a matter of dispute among historians whether Socrates accusers were more concerned with his alleged religious crimes or his political ones. In the contemporary world, the relationship between religion and democracy seems inherently contradictory and conflictual as espoused by Esposito.3 This is due to the fact that both concepts speak to different aspects of human condition. Religion is a system of belief and rituals that is related to the Divine and the sacred. On the other hand, democracy is dividedly secular and egalitarian. Its telos is geared towards the non-violent management of human affairs in order to create good life on the earth, not in the life after. Thus, Islamic fundamentalism is anathema to liberal democracy in general.

Elections are the cornerstone of liberal democracy. However, according to Muslim doctrine there is no legislative function in the Islamic state and therefore need for legislative institutions. An Islamic state is in principle a theocracy but in the more literal sense a polity ruled by God. Muslims believe that legitimate authority comes from God alone and the ruler derives his powers not from the people but from God alone and the holy law. This is clearly an anathema to liberal democracy. According to the Quran 638, might, power belongs to Allah and to his messenger and to the believers; that is, not to anyone else. In addition to that, rulers made rulers, there considered, theoretically as elaborations or interpretations of the only valid law that God promulgated by revelations as noted by Tierney.4 Thus, without legislative or any kind of cooperate bodies, there is no need for any principle of representation or any procedures for choosing representatives. Such central issues of western political democracy as the conduct of elections and the definitions and extensions of franchise therefore have no place in Islamic political evolution. This clearly shows Islamic fundamentalism threatens liberal democracy.

The slamislamic sharia or code of conduct is seen as clearly opposing the universal declaration of human rights; hence, an anathema to liberal democracy. Every human has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change their religion. However, sharia has been criticised for not recognising this human right. According to Bassara (2008) the applicable rules for religion conversion under sharia law include leaving Islam is a sin and a religious crime, once a person is officially classified as Muslim because of birth or religious conversion. In addition, for one to be a citizen of an Islamic state, he must convert himself to Islamic religion. This can be clearly exemplified by Chad, whereby the observance of religious holidays, the Islamic dress code, dietary rules and other ordinances are mandatory. This clearly shows that the basic tenet of liberal democracy that is, the freedom of conscience and right to choice are compromised. According to a 2013 report based on international survey of religious attributes more than 50 percent of Muslim population in six Islamic countries supported death penalty for any Muslim who leaves Islam.

  1. Baradat L P (2012) Political Ideologies: Their Origins and Impact (ed 11), Pearson Edu, Inc, Glenview, USA []
  2. Wright, R (1996) Islam and Liberal Democracies: Two Visions of Reformation “Journal of Democracy,” Routledge, London []
  3. Esposito, J (1992) The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality, Oxford University Press, New York []
  4. Tierney, J (2000) Theocracy: Can Democracy Survive Fundamentalism: Resolving The Conflict, Harvard University Press, USA []

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