Extremism, Fundamentalism, Islamism and Jihadism – Understanding the Difference

Although several Muslim countries are democracies – including most notably Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim majority nation – arguments about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy continue. On the one hand, research reveals a positive correlation between the proportion of a country’s population that is Muslim and its propensity toward authoritarianism. On the other hand, analysis of the World Values Survey, find that “surprisingly similar attitudes toward democracy are found in the West and the Islamic world.” While debates about the compatibility of Islam and democracy in general continue, the specific political ideology of islamism is an extreme, fundamentalist, political ideology that is vehemently opposed to the basic tenets of democracy.  

Islamism is not necessarily violent. Indeed, violence is not the criterion by which islamists are distinguished from other Muslims.[1] Political scientists, Winter and Hasan identify three criteria that set islamists apart from the majority of Muslims, namely extremism, fundamentalism and the politicisation of religion.[2]

Extremism is a rejection of balance. Extremists, so defined, are, of course, not confined to a particular religious’ belief, or indeed to religion at all, as evidenced, for example, by nationalist extremist movements. Religious extremists of all faiths place an unbalanced emphasis on some interpretations of religion and vehemently reject other interpretations as deviant or blasphemous. Extremists hold dogmatically to their particular version of belief and belittle alternatives. They believe their positions are morally superior and seek to enforce their beliefs on others.

Religious fundamentalists are extremists who make a selective use of scripture to justify their beliefs. Fundamentalists not only insist on a literal interpretation of religious texts, but they also cherry pick those parts of scripture that support with their extremist interpretation of their religion. This selective quoting of scripture allows them to justify their position with claims of dogmatic certainty based on the word of God. Many of the world’s major religious texts lend themselves to this misuse of scripture, as they contain not only an abundance of quotations on peace and love, but also abundant exhortations on violence and hate. Islam is no different in this regard than Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism, whose religious text have also been quoted by extremists to support their religious world views.

The politicisation of religion is the third characteristic that sets islamists apart from the majority of the global Muslim population. Islamists believe that modern societies are an aberration, contrary to the will of God. They believe political action is needed to reform societies in accord with God’s will. In particular, they believe that the conditions which God wills are the conditions which prevailed at the time of Muhammed and which are set down in the Qur’ān. The religious obligation to re-establish this earlier state of khilāfah, or Islamic Caliphate, is a basic tenet of islamism, even those islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood that operate within an electoral system. Islamists believe that the sharī’ah, the Islamic body of law defined by the Qur’ān, is the God-given law which must be imposed upon society in place of civil, man-made law.

As Winter and Hasan summarise, islamists are religious extremists who hold to an extreme version of their religion, deem themselves to be morally superior to others, reject many non-Islamic cultural norms, and adhere dogmatically to their extremist beliefs. They are religious fundamentalists who ground their doctrine within a selective reading of, and a literal interpretation of, scripture. And they are political actors who seek to  impose what is essentially a utopian political ideology, selectively shrouded in religious rhetoric, upon society.[3]

As already stated, violence is not inherent to Islamism. The majority of islamists, who themselves comprise a minority within the global Muslim community, while being religious extremists and fundamentalists, do not deploy violence to impose their beliefs upon their societies.

That minority of islamists who do use violence to further their political aims are jihadis, the ranks of which include Al-qaeda, and Islamic State. Jihadism is an militarised version of islamism. The jihadist believes that God wills an immediate, divinely sanctioned war in order to establish his will on earth. The highest purpose of human existence, according to jihadist ideology, is to re-establish the true system as revealed by God on earth, to cleanse the world of all debasing elements, and to return God to his rightful place as unconditional ruler of the world.[4] Underpinning jihadist thinking is the conviction that Islam is experiencing an exceptional crisis, driven partly by an assault by the West aimed at the eradication of Islam itself, and partly by the moral decay of Muslim societies from within.

Jihadist groups, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS, are predominantly Sunni Muslim. These groups view Shia Muslims as blasphemers and enemies of true Islam. By far the vast majority of victims of terrorist attacks over the past 15 years has been Muslims killed by Muslims.

Alongside violence, hatred is an essential element of Jihadist ideology, which targets all opposing forces, including Muslims who do not hold to their violent, extremist methods and beliefs, to subjugation or annihilation. As Bin Laden wrote, “The Lord Almighty has commanded us to hate the infidels and reject their love…. “This [hatred] is part of our belief and our religion.”[5]


[1] Tibi, B. (2013). The Islamist venture of the politicization of Islam to an ideology of Islamism: a critique of the dominating narrative in Western Islamic Studies. Soundings, 431–449.

[2] C. Winter and U. Hasan, The Balanced Nation: Islam and the challenges of extremism, fundamentalism, islamism and jihadism, Philosophia (2016) 44:667–688

[3] Van Niewenhuijze, C. (1995). Islamism: a defiant utopianism. Die Welt des Islams, 35,1 –36.

[4] Manfred Steger, The Rise of the Global Imaginary, Oxford University Press, 2008:225

[5] Quoted in Manfred Steger, The Rise of the Global Imaginary, Oxford University Press, 2008:228

2 thoughts on “Extremism, Fundamentalism, Islamism and Jihadism – Understanding the Difference

  1. Reblogged this on Lucky Otters Haven and commented:
    Far right Christian extremism is no different from Islamic extremism. The religion used is merely a cultural vehicle used to push a harsh, authoritarian political agenda, which always dismisses or condemns education, art, and science, and subjugates or oppresses women and gays. Inflicting a particular religious dogma on the population is intended to keep the common people in line and suppress questioning and dissent.

    Nothing good has ever resulted from the mixing of religion and politics. It has led to more wars, suffering and cruelty than anything else.
    The separation of church and state does not seek to eliminate religion from people’s lives: it allows people the right to worship as they choose, and it prevents the inevitable political tyranny that results when one set of beliefs is forced on the people and informs the country’s constitution and laws, as it does in Muslim majority countries that practice Sharia Law and may do here in America if dominionists have their way and rewrite the constitution to suit their set of religious beliefs.

    • Thanks for your comment. I totally agree. I would also add that the separation of church and state is based on a wider principle, namely that the state is forbidden from imposing any ideology – religious or otherwise – on citizens. The imposition of non-religious state sponsored ideologies can be seen from Stalinism and Maoism in the past, to North Korea today.

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