The Blog

Civilisation vs Barbarism: Why There's Nothing New in Fighting Islamic State

David Cameron should be able to look back on his record in office with a sense of pride and achievement. The Governments he has led have (partly) reversed Britain's economic decline, seen off the threat of Scottish separation and his party has won a victory at a General Election. As if that were not enough, his main opposition continue to squabble internally - incidentally, about whether to stagnate or follow the left-wing lemming off the cliff; his former coalition partners have only begun their long trek through the political wilderness and his only political headache is a rabble of inexperienced nationalist MPs from Scotland.

There have been worse times to be the PM.

It is for this reason, I suspect, that Mr Cameron has chosen to tackle the difficult subject of Islamic extremism. The need for him to address this thorny subject had been there for some time and the speech, delivered in Birmingham, needed to be well timed and perfectly delivered.

It is fortunate for Mr Cameron that this is exactly what happened. His speech was perfectly timed, well delivered (nothing new for the most genuinely eloquent Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher) and was culturally sensitive but bold enough to have broad-ranging appeal. Cameron's speech acknowledged Islamic extremism as a phenomenon within Britain's Islamic communities but did not blame the communities themselves; it appealed to British values as universal, positive and inclusive and - most importantly - it was imbued with an honest, decent and appealing patriotism.

However, there is one aspect of the PM's speech that I do not think went far enough. Mr Cameron did make some rather coy, coquettish comparisons to organisations like the IRA and the neo-Nazi movement but failed to make the important, lesser said, observation. That the sad, pathetic, stupid, sexually dysfunctional creeps from ISIL/ISIS/IS etc. are just the sad, pathetic, stupid, sexually dysfunctional creeps du jour; their name has changed but the idea remains the same. The framing of the story as Al Qaeda vs. Britain, ISIL vs. Britain, Islamic extremism vs. Britain, IRA vs. Britain does make excellent news because it makes it look like a new story each time. What we actually have is the latest manifestation of the oldest struggle - in fact the only real struggle - we face; civilisation versus barbarism.

I've been accused of having a Western-centric view of the world when it comes to my use of the word "civilisation" - a word few commentators choose to use, possibly through fear of a harsh and politically correct reprimand. To this extent, my accusers are correct. Civilisation, as I see it, comprises of several key aspects, which, as the Prime Minister correctly identified, Britain has in spades. Civilisation requires tolerance, personal independence, democracy, secularism (in practice - we are still a Christian nation but only in theory), freedom of speech, thought, the press and association - among other things.

Crucially, it also involves an elevation of the individual above the group. While, to paraphrase Daniel Hannan MEP, we in Britain, and the rest of civilisation, are often too polite to ever say so, these are exported Western liberal values. They emerged and have flourished here, thanks to a series of technological, military and ideological victories. It's as simple as that. Personally, I believe that if civilisation is not worth defending, then nothing is. It is fortunate that while it requires defending, it takes care of the offence itself. These values are infectious and it seems, there is no way of stopping them.

Barbarism, is also a term I use in the most deliberate sense. While the appearances, tactics, specific religious excuses and the location of the barbarian changes over time (currently the focus is Islamic extremists but it's been Serbian Christians, aggressively irreligious communists and Irish catholic extremists in the past - it will, most likely, change in the future), their M.O. remains pretty much the same. It contains a cocktail some sort of mad theocratic impulse, the subjugation of women (an essential and sufficient factor in my view), the threat and practice of physical violence and a sinister collectivism in which the individual is viewed as expendable for the sake of the group (always a sinister attribute, wherever you find it). Most importantly, there is always a kernel of hatred directed at civilisation around which all of these factors are situated.

You may well ask what I hoped to achieve in writing this piece, loaded as it is with exposition rather than analysis. Well, my fundamental desire is to reintroduce the civilisation/barbarism view of our continuing struggle, which long predates the infantile IS; to encourage a view that this is a struggle as old as we are and that this is the latest iteration of it. We who value civilisation ought to be proud of what has been achieved in its name and should never be afraid to speak up for it and to condemn, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, the crusaders of which ISIS is just the latest and blandest flavour as what they are "psychopathic criminals with ugly delusions". I would also encourage those of us for whom the Enlightenment values of tolerance, freedom (especially that of speech and thought), secularism, acceptance, individualism are the only things that make life worth living to be grateful, and ever vigilant in their defence.

Finally, I also want to echo the Prime Minister in stating that the enemies of civilisation are not those whom, from whatever social stripe they come, live peacefully within its walls - regardless of where they go, or do not go, to worship or study - but those who want to see us at each other's throats. We've won this fight every time before, but our enemy only needs to win once - we can't let them. Collectively, individually and because of the breadth and depth of civilisation we have achieved some amazing things, things too precious to be sacrificed or compromised due to fear. We must stand ready to defend all we've achieved together.