A Values Challenge To Fundamentalist Islam



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    7-15

ABSTRACT:  Fundamental values differences between Western-style democracy and fundamentalist Islam are outlined, in order to provide key points for a public-relations challenge to fundamentalist Islam to be transparent about the implications of its beliefs for the daily lives of citizens of the world.

KEY WORDS:  Islam, fundamentalism, fundamentalist Islam, values, democracy, Western democracies

Western democracies are being challenged militarily by fundamentalist Islam in the form of the Islamic State of Syria, Al Qaeda, and other organizations.  One of the challenges facing Western democracies is to articulate exactly how and why the way of life that Western democracies provide and promote is in some ways superior to the life that persons in ISIS-controlled territories would live.  The West seems to assume that its way of life is better, but it does not articulate this in specifics or challenge fundamentalist Islam to “prove” that its way of life would be superior.  People in other cultures could interpret the West’s lack of values coherence to mean that “anything goes,” that freedom is chaotic and provides no safety, and that the West has no morals, which could be key reasons to ally with ISIS or at least to stay neutral.

Key points of values difference are listed and explained below.  It is hoped that Western democracies will take the opportunity to put forth a simple analysis of this sort and challenge fundamentalist Islam to respond, so that people could choose between the two styles of societies.  Fundamentalist Islam could respond to these differences simply by saying that the quality of life of persons living its form of life doesn’t matter, because Allah, through Mohammed, has ordered life to be this way, but that will be seen as a “cop out” by most people, who for their own individual sakes are concerned about the quality of their lives.  Fundamentalist Islam could also respond simply with more violence, which would be an assertion that it is simply “right” and has no need to explain or justify itself.  This, too, would be a key consideration for persons choosing which sort of society they prefer.

In order to evaluate whether one way of life is “better than” another, we can ask questions such as—

Which system gives the greatest personal freedom to members?

Which system provides the safest society for members (safety from crime and other dangers posed by other people and by the government)?

Which system, through its values, morals, ethics, and childrearing practices, produces members who are happier, more confident, more creative, and more loving and helpful to their fellow members?

Which system results in greater loyalty to itself by members?

Which system gives members the greater sense of having some control over their fate?

Which system produces the highest employment levels and the highest percentage of jobs that members perceive as involving and fulfilling?

Which system produces the best life materially and financially for its members?

Which system supports the greater sense of meaning for its members?

Brief answers to these questions are articulated here, and more sophisticated answers to these questions could be obtained through consultation with persons who are knowledgeable, through experience, about the two types of societies under consideration.  Data from citizens on these issues could be obtained through polling of members of societies around the world.  Polling would only result in approximations, of course, but careful thought regarding the results would produce valuable comparisons and issues that could be a basis for worldwide discussions among citizens about how they view their societies’ abilities to achieve the kinds of goals listed above.  No culture should be considered sacred (no matter how much we love and depend on our own form of culture), and all cultures should be evaluated on the basis of what they do for their citizens.

1. CHANGE—Western democracy accepts and values change when that change can reasonably be expected to lead to improvements in society and a better life for citizens.  This includes changes in how the nature of human beings is understood and changes in ethics and morals based on that deeper and more accurate understanding.  Fundamentalism in general dislikes change and fundamentalist societies are slow to adopt changes, due partly to their greater belief that the way things are is already satisfactory and that since the society’s ways were established by appropriate authority, they need not be changed.  Fundamentalist Islam specifically wishes to minimize change and to continue both societal customs and morals/ethics as they were written in the Koran and in the Hadith and as these were embodied in Sharia Law (including ethical/moral views and punishments such as the inferior status of women, cutting off the hands of thieves, and stoning adulterers to death).  Saudi Arabia is currently the established society that acts most consistently with these ancient traditions (though even there, things are very slowly changing, as in the current small beginning of allowing women to drive, even if they still cannot drive alone or be out of the home unaccompanied by a male).

The reader can choose which form of society he or she would rather live in.


Fundamentalists in general and Muslim fundamentalists in particular prefer to see authority vested in individual leaders who are automatically granted respect and obedience because of their position, which carry God’s or Allah’s blessing.  The authority’s interpretation of laws and religious principles is accepted because of his (almost never her) position.  This is consistent with our experience with parents as authority figures in childhood, but citizens may suffer from the negative impacts of wrongful or idiosyncratic interpretations of the religion and of the personal goals of those in authority.

Western societies have learned through harsh experience in decades of religious wars that citizens are better off in the long run when the community chooses leaders (rather than having them chosen by religions or through inheritance), with everyone in the community having an equal voice in this choice.  In Western societies, power is invested in the position and not in the person filling that position, so negative consequences of a leaders’ actions can be minimized through the replacement of leaders via elections.  A leader’s interpretations of law and religion are not automatically accepted, because it is the institutions of government, responding to the wishes of the citizens, that determine the laws.

The reader can decide which sort of society he or she would prefer to live in.


Fundamentalist societies prefer to place restrictions on personal freedom and options, because all behavior should serve the religious or political goals of the society.  This results in more uniformity and conformity in society but also forces citizens to give up a large part of their freedom and their potential in order to conform.  Dissent and disagreement with leaders is discouraged, because it is assumed that the religious or political beliefs of the leaders are automatically true and good.

Western societies opt to maximize personal freedom and options, because people in general prefer being free and having minimal limits on their options.  This results in less conformity in society and perhaps more crime (depending on some other worldview factors), but Western societies accept less uniformity and more dissent for the sake of gaining the benefits of freedom and options.

The reader can decide which sort of society he or she would prefer to live in.


Fundamentalist societies in general and fundamentalist Islamic societies in particular, view women as lesser beings than men and tend to limit the full participation of women in society, preferring them to concentrate exclusively on roles as wives and mothers.  This view is not the only view of women supported by the Koran, but fundamentalist Islamic societies view it as the intent of Allah.

Western democratic societies espouse the view that men and women are equal in value and should have equal opportunities to participate in all societal roles and functions (even though in practice, this equality has not yet been perfectly achieved).

The reader can decide which sort of society he or she would prefer to live in.


Fundamentalist societies may produce great loyalty to the society by its members, because they place great emphasis on the way of life in that society as being “right,” moral, or sacred due its establishment or endorsement by the deity.  This emphasis also tends to make members less interested in change and less accepting of differences between themselves and members of other societies.

Western democracies promote individual freedom and tolerance of differences, and, as a result, more dissent and evident disagreement in the society as a whole, but the genetically ingrained instinct to protect the group when the group is threatened seems to result in satisfactory levels of self-sacrifice for the community at times when that is needed.

The reader can decide which sort of society he or she would prefer to live in.


It can be argued that with its more clear and simple rules for living and its harsher punishments, fundamentalist Islamic societies might have lower crime rates than Western democracies, which allow greater behavioral freedom to members (which might encourage a greater variety of behavior in members, including some that are illegal or harmful to other members).  On the other hand, Western democracies provide greater protection for members from harmful effects of individual rulers or religious leaders.  Crime statistics and a clear understanding of what each society considers harmful would help in this analysis.

The reader can decide which sort of society he or she would prefer to live in.


In fundamentalist societies, punishments for wrongdoing tend to be harsh, because leaders must suppress wrongdoing through example, and because the wrongdoer is not only breaking the secular law but also violating religious dictums when he does wrong.

In the West, because punishments are for the breaking of secular laws and not religious laws, punishments are less harsh, and there is more room for the justice system to focus on rehabilitation or making the wrongdoer less likely to do wrong again.

The reader can decide which sort of society he or she would prefer to live in.


Fundamentalist societies are relatively intolerant of differing beliefs and worldviews because of the threat they pose to society-wide beliefs and the presumed insult to the deity that those differences represent.  People in fundamentalist religious societies tend to be more suspicious of people with different beliefs and worldviews, and fundamentalist societies tend to be less inclusive, because citizens’ beliefs in the religious or political ideals of the society can be easily subverted if they have extensive contact with people who hold other beliefs and worldviews.

Western societies are relatively more tolerant and inclusive because of their emphasis on the value of personal freedoms and options, including the “right” of individual citizens to decide for themselves what is right and true.  The resulting greater diversity of beliefs and lifestyles, does however, make governance more complicated.

The reader can decide which sort of society he or she would prefer to live in.


Fundamentalist societies judge the success of society by the degree of conformity to and service of the religious or political ideal that guides the society.  Personal fulfillment is not particularly important, and it is presumed the people are automatically fulfilled if they are living a proper life.

Western societies judge their success by the personal successes of their members, so that citizens’ degrees of happiness, confidence, creativity, and love for others become the important goals for society.  Western societies do have ideals, but they are secular ideals that are based on the society’s convictions regarding conceptions, methods, and rules that make society function smoothly and also support personal fulfillment, such as freedom and personal responsibility.

The reader can decide which sort of society he or she would prefer to live in.


Fundamentalist societies must exert considerable control over their citizens, in order to keep them focused on and conforming to the religious or political ideals of the society.  As a result, citizens have less sense of personal control over their own lives and feel that they have less ability to shape their lives to be what they would like them to be.  (Some citizens, though, may find this control provides agreeable and needed structure for their lives.)

Western societies give individuals more control over their lives (with more decision options), which seems to lead to greater creativity and effort to succeed than in more authoritarian societies, but may also feel like a burden to some, since they and they alone are seen as responsible for their success or failure.

The reader can decide which sort of society he or she would prefer to live in.


Fundamentalist societies tend to have lower levels of financial wealth overall, due to the unfree nature of their economies (unless they have a tremendous natural resource, such as oil, that the government can sell to outsiders and then simply give the profits to all citizens, whether they work or not).

Western societies seem to have greater economic growth and higher wealth levels, from allowing greater freedom to citizens to be entrepreneurs and also by harnessing the inherent wish of all human beings to better their lives without being impeded by societally imposed limits.  (It should be kept in mind that the resources of any given country have a great influence on the wealth level of society.)

The reader can decide which sort of society he or she would prefer to live in.


In fundamentalist societies, there are fewer jobs and a smaller variety of jobs, due to the more conservative nature of the economies.  Citizens are expected to find some of their fulfillment from conforming to the religious or political worldview of the society.

In Western societies, freer economies lead to a greater variety of jobs and potentially more possibilities for citizens to find personal fulfillment in their jobs.

The reader can decide which sort of society he or she would prefer to live in.


All human beings wish to mate, raise children, have good relationships with others in their families and communities, and have lives with some enjoyment and no more than tolerable pain.  Achieving these goals and life conditions can lead to a sense of meaning in one’s life, and these things are possible in both fundamentalist and Western societies, though perhaps to different degrees.

Many people also find meaning in conformance to ideals and submission to authority (doing what God wants one to do, doing what one’s parents want of one, etc.), and fundamentalist societies probably offer more possibilities of finding this type of meaning than Western societies.

Many people find meaning through having a sense of purpose.  Fundamentalist societies, utilizing the natural affinity of people for religion, offer better articulated beliefs regarding who citizens are supposed to be and what they are supposed to do, and some citizens can easily adopt these concepts and thereby find a sense of purpose for themselves.  (Citizens everywhere can readily find purpose in raising their children and supporting their communities and cultures.)

Many people find meaning through greater authenticity and self-expression (leading the life they choose to lead, artistic and other creative expressions, a job the activities of which fit well with the individual’s sense of what is meaningful and valuable, etc.), and Western societies offer more possibilities of this type of fulfillment than do fundamentalist (more conservative) societies.

The reader can decide which sort of society he or she would prefer to live in.