Is ISIS an ‘existential threat’?
Now, no. Later, possibly.
by Michael Cook
What is the greatest existential threat to world security? The Islamic State?
This month, yes. But back in July, the incoming chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff told a Congressional committee that it was Russia. "If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I'd have to point to Russia. And if you look at their behavior, it's nothing short of alarming," said Marine General Joseph Dunford.
And what about China? And North Korea? Both of them have been described as existential threats to the West.
Western civilisation is always facing “existential threats” ranging from climate change to asteroids to a global pandemic to artificial intelligence to nuclear warfare. The University of Cambridge has a well-funded Centre for the Study of Existential Risk to alert people to the dangers of new technologies. We seem to be hard-wired to turn small disasters into existential risks. Perhaps that is why zombie films and other dystopian dramas are so popular.
So it’s not cowardice or naiveté to heed the Obama Administration’s call not to panic about the Islamic State after its Friday the 13th atrocities in Paris. “They’re a bunch of killers with good social media,” President Obama said yesterday. They are “dangerous,” but “Our way of life is stronger. We have more to offer.” And Vice-President Joe Biden has insisted: "ISIS is no existential threat to the United States of America."
However, there is an ominous precedent for these fears. Within a hundred years after the death of Mohammed, Muslim armies overran the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, obliterating Christianity from countries where it had flourished for centuries. It took 700 years for a resurgent Christian kingdoms to expel Islam from Spain. That left a scar on the Western psyche which still aches.
Could this happen again?
Not everyone agrees with Obama’s assessment. John Lloyd, an eminent journalism academic at the University of Oxford, recently wrote: “This, I think, adds up to war: and an existential threat. A threat to our existence, our way of life.” He quotes the former head of British armed forces from 2010 to 2013, General David Richards. Earlier this year he declared that the threat is existential and “that we need to approach this issue of Muslim extremism as we might approach World War II back in the 1930s.”