Why Islamist extremists hate democracy so much

One sure sign that someone is become radicalised, perhaps violently so, is their rejection of democracy.

One sure sign that someone is become radicalised, perhaps violently so, is their rejection of democracy.

We humans have had quite the journey figuring out how to run our societies, haven’t we? In the beginning, there were strong, powerful men – and they were usually men – who through the use of coercion, and also family or kin support, ruled over the rest. Eventually, these became kings and, less often, queens, some of whom claimed divine origins, putting the fear of god(s) into anyone who challenged their dominance.

Royalty lasted a long time – it is still with us here and there although most kings and queens today are ‘constitutional monarchs’ with limited powers – and our histories are rife with stories of succession and infighting over who should reign. The study of history used to be focused on who sat on the throne and what they did while there, with little emphasis on everyone else (the vast, vast majority).

Democracy may be the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Winston Churchill

In more recent times, democracies have flourished – I will skip over Communism – although this form of governance is fading in some places according to several analyses I have read. And yes, we still have autocrats and dictators, some of whom pretend to be democratic in nature but are fooling no one. Is there any more obvious example than the Kims who have dominated North Korea for decades under the ironic name Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)?

Democracy may be, as Winston Churchill once said,  “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps it is the best we can do as humans. In any event it is a damn site better than many other systems of government.

So, why is it that Islamist extremists intensely HATE democracy?

We are seeing yet another case of this rejection in Burkina Faso as jihadis have done everything they can to disrupt current elections there. What is it specifically about democracy that sets their knickers in a knot?

For the answer to that I want to turn to Sayyid Qutb. This Egyptian ideologue was one of the 20th century’s most famous minds on Islamist extremism. Jailed in Egypt in the wake of an assassination attempt on President Nasser, he used his time behind bars to write copiously about jihad – the violent kind – and his works still resonate today.

His most famous work was entitled Ma’alim fil Tariq – usually rendered as Milestones in English. In it he talks a lot about ‘pure’ Islam, the role of the Quran, how Islam is the only ‘real’ civilisation’ and jihad of course. He also speaks of jahiliyyah – a state of ignorance equivalent to the era before the advent of Islam (early 7th century CE). In this, he calls everyone who is not Muslim, including Christians and Jews which normally are seen as Ahl al-Kitab, or ‘people of the Book’ (i.e. a reference to the common scriptural heritage of all three monotheistic faiths), jahili – i.e. pagans.

Sayyid Qutb

For the purposes of this piece, however, I want to focus on what he had to say about democracy. Here is an excerpt from Milestones:

All Jewish and Christian societies today are jahili societies…because their forms of worship, their customs and manners are derived from their false and distorted beliefs. They are also jahili societies because their institutions and laws are not based on submission to God alone. They neither accept the rule of God nor do they consider God’s commandments as the only valid basis for all laws; on the contrary they have established assemblies of men which have absolute power to legislate laws..after explaining these facts, the position of Islam in relation to all these jahili societies can be described in one sentence: it considers all these societies unIslamic and illegal.


Of course, legislatures which make laws are those elected by the people in a democratic way. We make, debate and adopt laws through the democrtic process. We choose which laws we want to help guide us, which represent what we think is right and wrong.

Qutb says all this is wrong of course, and his multiple works call for the forceful removal of societies of this nature through violent jihad. His ideas can still be seen in the propaganda of just about every Islamist terrorist group: Al Qaeda (AQ), Islamic State (ISIS), Al Shabaab (AS), the list goes on and on.

That is why jihadis in Burkina Faso are doing everything in their power to disrupt elections. Jihadis hate choice; they hate differences of opinion. They want to impose their narrow, intolerant Muslim views on the rest of us and they will kill to do it. Today it may be Burkina Faso but tomorrow it will be Afghanistan once the Taliban terrorists take over.

Democracy is already under siege in enough places around the world, not just in those with Islamist terrorist groups. If we value this way of governing ourselves we need to defend it. Maybe another Churchillian quote will help: “You have enemies? Good. It means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Islamist terrorists are truly our enemies and will not stop trying to kill us.

Democracy is worth standing up for. What say you?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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