Shouldn't be a fundamentalist and extremist antonyms


Prof. Dr. Armin Pfahl-Traughber

Prof. Dr. Armin Pfahl-Traughber

To person

Dipl.-Pol., Dipl.-Soz., Born in 1963, is a full-time lecturer at the Federal University of Applied Sciences in Brühl with a focus on extremism and the history of ideas, lecturer at the University of Bonn with a focus on political theory and editor of the Yearbook for Extremism and Terrorism Research (Brühl).

Definition - characteristics - assignments

When many people think of "Islamism" only terror and violence. There are also Islamists who do not use force to pursue their goals. Nevertheless, they persistently pursue their vision of an Islamic state.

House search in an Islamic cultural center in Berlin, September 8, 2011. Shortly before the anniversary of 9/11, two men were arrested in Berlin. They may have planned attacks. (& copy AP)

Introduction and question

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the term "Islamism" has been present in both public and academic debates. It is often used synonymously with terms such as "Islamic fundamentalism", "Jihadism" or "radical Muslims". But what exactly is meant by this often remains unclear. Most fanatical and violent groups with a terrorist orientation that relate to Islam are meant to be conceptualized with "Islamism". This view ignores the fact that there are indeed Islamists who do not see the use of force as their primary political instrument. With the one-sided fixation on this style of action one deprives oneself of an important insight: Islamist views are fundamentally problematic from a democratic theoretical point of view - regardless of a latent or manifest willingness to use violence.

Definition of Islamism in general

"Islamism" is a collective term for all political views and actions which, in the name of Islam, strive to establish a society and state system that is solely religiously legitimized. The ideological origin of the intended movement lies in internal Islamic reform efforts in the second half of the 19th century, the organizational roots can be seen in the "Muslim Brotherhood" founded in Egypt in 1928. All later currents were and are intended to make Islam not only a binding guideline for individual life, but also for social life. This means that religion and state should no longer be separate and Islam should no longer be anchored institutionally. This goes hand in hand with the rejection of the principles of individuality, human rights, pluralism, secularity and popular sovereignty.

Styles of action between violence and politics

Contrary to popular belief, by no means all Islamists are fundamentally oriented towards violence or willing to engage in terrorist acts. Ideally, the following four styles of action can be distinguished, whereby they can in turn be assigned to two main groups: What is meant here are violence-prone and reform-oriented currents, i.e. "jihadist" and "institutional Islamism" (Bassam Tibi). For the last-mentioned area, for example, parties should be named which want to work through parliamentary channels after successful elections. Islamists who are more focused on social work are concerned with attracting followers through presence in everyday life. Among the violent to terrorist groups in Islamism, a distinction is made between those who only commit acts of violence in their home countries and those who also intend such acts in other countries. In reality, several of these styles of action sometimes mix with different focuses.

Relationship between Islam and Islamism

How Islam and Islamism relate to each other, there are two fundamentally different views: One view assumes that there is hardly any difference between Islam and Islamism, since Islam as a religion also relates to the way of life and thus also to politics . This view ultimately declares every Muslim to be an Islamist, which is neither the reality in Western nor in majority Muslim societies. The other view postulates that Islamists only instrumentalize Islam in their own interest and that there is therefore no connection between Islam and Islamism. This interpretation suppresses the fundamental importance of the appeal to Islam and the formation of identity through this religion in Islamism. On the other hand, the view of the "Islamism compatibility of Islam" (Armin Pfahl-Traughber) should be advocated, according to which the Islamists may not represent the only, but one possible, interpretation of Islam.

Points of contact in the basis and history of Islam

To this end, they refer to statements in the Koran and the history of this religion: In the Koran there are statements that express an absolute claim for one's own belief and tendencies towards exclusion towards those of other faiths. This also includes derogatory and defamatory words about the Jews, as one often finds relevant references and quotations in Islamist anti-Semitism. According to Muslim tradition, the early history of Islam was marked by the fact that Mohammed initially appeared only as a prophet, but then also as a politician and general. From this, Islamists deduce the need to reunite religion and politics, because Mohammed already postulated this unity. In his successor, wars of conquest were waged in the name of religion, first from the Arab region, and later via the Ottoman Empire into Europe. Islamists consider them a historical and political component of their understanding of Islam.

Characteristics of Islamism

Characteristic I: Absolute establishment of Islam as an order of life and state

What are the special features of the political movement of Islamism in terms of content? The absolute establishment of Islam as an order of life and state can be regarded as a characteristic. Every convinced Muslim will see his religion as his true faith and to a certain extent orient his personal life according to his interpretation of Islam. This view, even if it goes hand in hand with a certain exclusive claim to the "only true religion", does not necessarily have anything to do with Islamism. Only when the intended absolute establishment of this belief is to become a necessary component for the regulation of social coexistence in a society, for example in the sense of a legal or state order, can one speak of such a political orientation. In combination with other basic positions of the Islamists, it amounts to overcoming the separation of politics and religion and establishing an Islamic state in the theocratic sense.

Characteristic II: God's sovereignty instead of the people's sovereignty as the basis of legitimation

In such a political system the supreme basis of legitimation would be a sovereignty from God, but not from a people's sovereignty. The starting point for such an interpretation is the following insight: Since God cannot express himself and the "Holy Scriptures" of different forms of faith can be interpreted ambiguously and selectively, in such a theocratic state a minority of "religious scholars" is given the task of finding the only correct and legally binding one Interpretation of the respective belief. Because of this fact alone, the establishment of Islamist rule amounts to a dictatorial system that places the asserted divine sovereignty over the real sovereignty of the people. This view does not have to stand for the rigorous rejection of elections. Nevertheless, in this perspective, the candidates or parties are only allowed to move within the limited framework of Islamist thought, which excludes independent endeavors as well as political opposition.

Characteristic III: Holistic penetration and control of society

Such a social model means that political and social interaction is completely permeated and controlled. From the notion "Islam is the solution" - or better formulated: "The Islamist interpretation of Islam should be the solution" - it is not just the sole orientation of the state in this sense that follows. This would also involve the rejection of human rights. After all, freedom of expression and religion for all would not exist in such a state. Islamists want the state, law and society to be totally shaped by their ideology. In social contexts with Islamist hegemony, this can be seen in the indoctrination of children as well as in the dress code for women. The "religious scholars" as alleged spokesmen for "divine sovereignty" are not only concerned with dictatorial rule, but also with the political mobilization of society.

Characteristic IV: Homogeneous and identitary social order in the name of Islam

This amounts to a homogeneous and identitary concept of society, according to which all people in such a social order have to submit to the political guidelines of "true faith". From the perspective of this collectivist way of thinking, the "religious scholars" no longer have any meaning or value as individuals, but only as part of a "religious community". From this point of view, the orientation of human social behavior towards autonomy and individuality must be regarded as a deviation from Islam and therefore as a shameful expression of immorality and corruption. Such a view excludes the articulation of individual and particular interests in the sense of a social pluralism, because in a society that is considered to be authentic Islamic there are no differences between individuals and groups. Believers and "religious scholars", ruled and rulers form a collective that allows individuality only to a limited extent.

Characteristic V: Position against the democratic constitutional state

From the previous statements, the Islamists also take a stand against the norms and rules of a democratic constitutional state: their demand for an Islamic state is directed against the requirement to separate politics and religion. Historically, however, this made peaceful and equal coexistence between members of different beliefs possible. The evocation of divine sovereignty - as a decisive authority for politics based on the allegedly correctly interpreted message of faith - abolishes the basic democratic principle of popular sovereignty. And since the interpretation of the alleged only true Islam is supposed to be taken over by a group of "religious scholars", a self-appointed elite, this amounts to the establishment of a dictatorship by an individual or a group. Human rights or pluralism are superfluous in this ideologically and religiously homogeneous society.

Characteristic VI: Fanaticism and readiness to use violence as potentials

The basic Islamist positions mentioned do not have to go hand in hand with a willingness to engage in violence and terrorism. However, this thinking contains basic assumptions that promote the propensity for violence. This includes the rigorous condemnation of the existing social order not only in Western countries. Due to their secular orientation, they are seen as the lifeworld of immorality and "states of ignorance". But since the majority of Muslims accept such political and social systems and do not demand the need to replace them with a "state of God", the Islamists also see themselves in the front line against these believers. As a kind of self-appointed elite, they absolutely want to enforce the alternative of an Islamic dictatorship against them. If they lack political and social support, Islamists may then resort to violence.

Islamism as a hybrid category

How can one classify Islamism conceptually and in terms of content in a meaningful way? In comparison with other political categories, similarities, but also differences, quickly become apparent.


Extremism is understood to mean all views and actions that are directed against the minimum conditions of a democratic constitutional state. A content orientation in the sense of a certain political ideology does not play a role in this assignment. In this respect, there can also be different forms such as left and right-wing extremism. When looking at Islamist ideology, commonalities can be identified in relation to the respective enemy images (Israel, USA) and structural principles (anti-pluralism, collectivism). With regard to the respective priorities in the self-image, however, differences to left (equality) and right-wing extremism (ethnicity) dominate. Nonetheless, one could speak of "Islamic extremism" or "religious extremism" as a further form of Islamism.


Sometimes the phrase "green fascism" is used for Islamism with polemical intent: Certain historical experiences such as the cooperation of the Mufti of Jerusalem with the National Socialists or different commonalities such as anti-Semitism or leader thinking seem to provide good factual arguments for this assessment. The author does not consider this assessment to be convincing: Fascism as a political movement between the 1920s and 1940s in Europe was a completely different ideological, organizational and social phenomenon: Ethnic aspects hardly play a role for Islamism while they were central to fascism. The latter movements defined themselves as secular, although they made use of Christian-religious content and rituals. In contrast, the appeal to Islam, the prophet and the early history of religion represent the constitutive substantive identity factor.


The phrase "fundamentalism" is often used in relation to Islamism: In a narrower sense, this is understood to mean religious movements that refer to a literal interpretation of their "Holy Scriptures" and rigorously reject the modernization of their own faith. In a broader sense, "fundamentalism" is a collective term for all cultural, political, social and economic views that do not want to subject themselves to a critical examination of their basic assumptions and negate argumentative objections with reference to their own fundamental values. Islamism could be seen as a manifestation of fundamentalism in both the former and the latter sense. Conversely, "Islamic fundamentalism" and "Islamism" should not be equated. Orthodox views of Islam without political activities can also be assigned to the first-mentioned area - which means that a constitutive characteristic of "Islamism" is missing.


And finally, it should be discussed to what extent Islamism can be considered a new form of totalitarianism. This term is used to conceptualize a certain type of dictatorship that can be distinguished from both a liberal democracy and an authoritarian dictatorship. The main difference to the latter is that a totalitarian dictatorship is about the broad penetration of society and that dictatorial rule would not only be limited to state functions. This is exactly the intention of Islamists, as they themselves want to steer people's private lives in the direction of their ideological views. In this respect, the term "totalitarian" would be applicable to Islamism, even if the term is actually used as a term for the state level. However, since there are only a few Islamist states and systems, the use of the term "totalitarianism" poses a problem. In relation to ideology, one can certainly speak of a form of "totalitarian thinking".

Closing words and summary

"Islamism" is a collective term for all political views and actions that strive to establish a religiously legitimized society and state in the name of Islam. Islamists use different styles of action from party politics to social work and terrorism. They all have different characteristics:
  1. The absolute establishment of Islam as an order of life and state.
  2. The primacy of God's sovereignty over popular sovereignty as a basis of legitimation.
  3. The strived for complete penetration and control of society.
  4. The demand for a homogeneous and identitarian social order in the name of Islam and
  5. the stand against the norms and rules of the modern democratic constitutional state.
In the balance sheet, this makes Islamism a form of religious extremism, a phenomenon of political fundamentalism and a variant of ideological totalitarianism.


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