Aside from the fact that it publicises them on the internet, Isis’s atrocities are not greatly different from those that have been committed in many other situations of acute conflict. To cite only a few of the more recent examples, murder of hostages, mass killings and systematic rape have been used as methods of warfare in the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Rwanda, and the Congo.
But the rise of Isis is also part of a war of religion. Nothing is more commonplace than the assertion that religion is a tool of power, which ruling elites use to control the people. No doubt that’s often true. But a contrary view is also true: politics may be a continuation of religion by other means. In Europe religion was a primary force in politics for many centuries. When religion seemed to be in retreat, it renewed itself in political creeds – Jacobinism, nationalism and varieties of totalitarianism – that were partly religious in nature. Something similar is happening in the Middle East. Fuelled by movements that combine radical fundamentalism with elements borrowed from secular ideologies such as Leninism and fascism, conflict between Shia and Sunni communities looks set to continue for generations to come. Even if Isis is defeated, it will not be the last movement of its kind. Along with war, religion is not declining, but continuously mutating into hybrid forms.
Western intervention in the Middle East has been guided by aview of the world that itself has some of the functions of religion. There isno factual basis for thinking that something like the democratic nation-stateprovides a model on which the region could be remade. States of this kindemerged in modern Europe, after much bloodshed, but their future is far fromassured and they are not the goal or end-point of modern political development.From an empirical viewpoint, any endpoint can only be an act of faith.