Throughout the past decade the narrative that the West is staring down Islam as an existential threat has been almost unquestionably accepted by mainstream consciousness.
That threat from Islam looks nothing like Nazism or Communism or any of the ideological competitors to democracy attempted in living memory. The United States and its allies have spent more than US$6 trillion in fighting militant Islamism since 2001. That is a big deal.
The narrative says the West faces a resumption of Samuel Huntington’s concept of a “clash of civilisations”, more recently described by historian Niall Fergusson as “the West vs the Rest”. We are told it is a zero-sum game. But it is not clear this is so.
This is the only time those disgusting Paris shooters will be mentioned. Nevertheless, the terrorist attack offers a chance to ask why the Western world has chosen to narrate the threat as an existential battle, rather than as marginal or ideological.
First it is necessary to gauge the success of Islamic violence over this Long War. The al Qaeda movement wished to topple Arab autocratic regimes and destroy the United States. It has been unsuccessful in these endeavours and was itself destroyed.
The splintering of al Qaeda has only threatened local governments, none of which are Western in any form or measurement. The deadly mutation known as the Islamic State nominally controls scattered parts of Mesopotamia but it too is slipping into oblivion under heavy US military pressure.
These groups struck targets in Western countries, while the US-led response has been effective at mitigating those strikes. People continue to die on both sides.
It is a nasty and dirty war, but the real reason Western governments focus so intently on militant Islam is not often discussed in polite company. It is not just about Islam, it is about humans.
Some people believe exposing government actions is the best path to change. Edward Snowden in the United States and Nicky Hagar’s publishing of the Dirty Politics book both operated from this assumption.
Yet if the truth is so bad, why doesn’t it often change anything? More importantly, why does power in the West seem not to overly care when the truth leaks? Because the system is not frightened of the truth, it is only frightened of a more effective lie.
Today the central dynamic of the modern Western government is self-doubt. That problem has becoming more pronounced with the rise of instant communication and the return of mass cultural rituals which were supposedly isolated from politics.
Democracy’s goal is to convince people that it is a workable process that can replace much older systems such as monarchies, strongmen or religion. It has been mostly successful but convincing people of democracy’s legitimacy seems to require far greater effort compared to the older options.
The democratic process works well when the structures of power are set up to reinforce it. For instance, it is successful when information can be centrally controlled and the public is well-educated. Neither of these are true anymore.
As a result the structure of Western democracy feels under threat. But it is threatened in a very particular way by Islam. The true threat to democracy is old religion of which jihadists represent the tip of the spear. Religion will always take less effort to convince humans than democracy can.
So since 2001, the form of the question presented to us has been for citizens of Western nations to place their trust either in secular democracy or religion. That is the only choice.
But to accept this form of the question misses why Western governments choose to think like this. The hidden goal is not a choice between two government systems. It is to convince citizens that the default stance is towards central government of some kind, not away from it.
The message is: Choose Pepsi or choose Coke, just stay in the system. Thinking in this way will only maintain the status quo and it won’t help fix the deep structural problems secular democracy is grappling with in this new century.
Religion “clicks” in human brains far more efficiently than secular democracy ever will. They have existed for far longer than democracy and if history is any guide, they will be victorious in the long run unless a better way is found.
This is why the narrative of painting Islam as an existential threat is at bottom a discussion over whether humanity will revert to old comfortable rituals or continue towards a more inclusive process of organisation.
It is becoming clear the answer probably is not to be found in a secular central democracy no matter how hard the concept is pushed. As always, the answer is probably somewhere in between. But it does need to exist.