If Isis didn't exist, the West would have to invent it
Viewed from a western perspective, 2015 was defined by the predations of Isis. The year opened with killings in Paris and it drew to a close with attacks on youth and pleasure in the same city. In between, western tourists, many of them British, were gunned down in Tunisia; in Syria, what remained of the classical city Palmyra was ravaged.
Each new atrocity prompted a fresh amplification of alarmist rhetoric. After the Tunisia attacks in June, David Cameron described the fight against Isis as the "struggle of our generation", stating the terrorist group presented an "existential threat" to the West. And when MPs voted to extend anti-Isis airstrikes to Syria, their speeches were peppered with references to fascism. So, we enter 2016 with the barbarians of our day at the gates, even within our city walls. But are they really? How come Isis has western governments in thrall?
Some reasons are sound. There was the impressive speed of its advance over two years. There was the strength of its ideas. And there was the ruthless genius of its propaganda. There was its offer, too - which appealed to some westerners - of a cause that demanded sacrifice in return, perhaps, for an eternal reward.
Such a picture, however, ignores its weaknesses. The ideology behind Isis is medieval, even pre-medieval. Many of its ways are barbaric. Developed countries are happy to have left them behind; many others are fighting to do the same. Ancient and modern can only be combined so far. Is it realistic to believe - still less fear - that Isis will endure?
And how cohesive is Isis anyway? Isis did not, in fact, claim the Charlie Hebdo massacre last January - a Yemeni al-Qaeda affiliate demanded the "honours" . Does Isis have a command structure capable of directly ordering such atrocities as the Paris attacks? And what of the supposed groups subordinate to its authority in Libya, Tunisia, even Kenya? Perhaps the dreaded Isis, like al-Qaeda before it, is more of a label that extremist groups adopt to be feared in the timorous West?
Its fanatical ideology may not, importantly, even be its chief source of appeal. Isis prospered in Iraq, largely due to western failures. The US and UK left widespread disorder after they toppled Saddam Hussein; Isis moved in offering security, albeit of a primitive kind. The US and UK dispossessed once-dominant Sunnis; Isis offered a way back.
The appeal of Isis, such as it is, reflects a quest for order and revenge as much as a religious idea, which suggests where the limits of Isis's power might lie. If it cannot keep order, if it cannot delegate power when it moves on, then its authority may wane. Military force is not necessarily the key to its defeat, just as it was not the only key to its victory.
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But even if Isis has peaked, the West is not out of the woods. It has given a host of outsiders a pretext for intervention in the Middle East - the real purpose of which is less to defeat this detestable movement than to keep a stake in the power-play in the region.
The fixation on Isis has damaging consequences: it blinds western governments to regional shifts that could be even more problematic, such as the 30-year Sunni revolt. At home, it allows the UK and France to blame others for their patchy success in integrating Muslims.
Here are the barbarians we'd have to invent if they did not exist. Isis is not the first monster enemy to be harnessed to flailing governments, but its defeat in Ramadi should encourage it to be seen with a new sense of proportion.
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