The recent article in The Economist about the spread of Al-Qaeda explains clearly how this terrorist organisation has moved from a marginal irritant on the West at the end of the 20th century, to the West's most psychologically-potent enemy in the early 21st century.
Reading this also reminded me of Christopher Hitchens' analysis of Islamofascism; points which mirror some of my own thoughts on the psychological and ideological links between radical "political" Islam, and the Fascism that plagued Europe up to the Second World War.
Put into perspective, the threat of Islamic terrorism that inspired the (ongoing) "War On Terror" is not an existential one on the West. The biggest existential threat to the world is climate change; after that, the largest geo-political changes (threats) the West has to learn to adapt to are the rise of China (and the East in general), the relative decline of Western powers to the aforementioned rising powers, and the jostling for position over resources across spheres of influence (such as Africa) and zones of contention (such as Central Asia). I've mentioned why "The East" already has some advantages in the jostling for power over "The West" before.
Add into that the fact that, due to Globalisation, multinational companies have as much influence on geo-politics as many countries, and you have a world that more closely represents the "Risk" board game's playing surface, albeit fought mostly with economic weapons rather than real ones. It also sounds a bit like the world divided like the global power system described in Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-four".
No, Islamofascism, and the terror threat of the Al-Qaeda "franchise" does not represent an existential threat to the West.
That being said, Islamofascism does represent a different, more subtle, longer-term threat to the West. And in some ways, Islamofascism has already encroached into many aspects of Western society almost unnoticed, in much the same way that earlier Fascism used its enemy's own system (liberal democracy) against itself and for Fascism's own advantage.
The meaning of power
Islam, directly translated, means "submission" (as far as I am aware). Fascism as an ideology was about the submission of the collective will to the political centre; this brings to mind the famous Nazi propaganda movie "The Triumph Of The Will".
Islam may therefore be seen as the submission of the collective will to the religious centre - "Allah", whose "will" is interpreted through mullahs and through the writings of the Prophet and other adherents. Of course, all religions base their ideas on surrendering individual will to a religious idea (this is the definition of "faith"). What marks Islamofascism as unique in the modern, globalised world, is its absolute application of power and will over a rational, pluralistic West, and the ease that it is able to infiltrate into Western society, as well as ideologically defeat more moderates followers of its faith.
I talked about earlier Fascism, implying that it almost seemed to serve as a template for today's Islamofascists to infiltrate Western society and bring down the system from within. While the latter point seems far-fetched, the basic premise (that Islamofascism has infiltrated Western society) stands true; and there has been plenty of evidence to support it.
One of the best examples of this is in British society.
Britain's position as a bastion of liberal democracy and cultural pluralism is one thing that makes it an exemplar to many would-be free, modern societies elsewhere. It is precisely in such a society that Islamofascists have been able to preach their violent, undemocratic and pernicious ideas under the protection of "free speech"; at the same time, they have also been allowed to conduct behaviour that could land any British non-Muslim in prison, while claim the right to religious expression; and most subversive of all, have denounced and threatened anyone who criticises their faith, ideas or behaviour with violence.
In other words, Islamofascism has reached a position of becoming almost a state within a state in the UK, having their own self-contained communities, schools, businesses and so on; more than that, the state has effectively surrendered moral and legal authority to such Islamofascists.
This is what is meant by power. When a section of society has reached a position of becoming legally untouchable due to the weakness of the state in applying its own laws, it is a demonstration of power by that section of society over the state power.
Putting the fear of God into people
Because of this, other sections of society begin to practise "self-censorship" when in public, such as being careful not to carry out behaviour that may earn the wrath of Islamofascists. This is another example of the application of psychological power. In other words, putting almost the literal fear of God into non-believers.
Using this method, over a long-enough time scale, the Islamofascists can win by default; terrifying non-believers into behaving how they want, while using the state's lack of will and appeasement to create a de facto Islamic State within the UK. This method can then be applied across the West, as long as "liberal democracy" is used, like the Fascists before, as a vehicle to destroy liberal democracy.
Terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are simply the sharp end of the scale, using actual terror tactics (the random killing of whoever they feel is worthy of death). Terrorism is a well-practised method of creating fear. For Al-Qaeda, it is a simple application of will; a statement of intent and a challenge to the West. These people do not fear death; Islamofascists, like earlier Fascists, embrace it in all its glory.
And this is the other psychological weapon they have over liberal democracies. The West may have large armies, but they lack the moral will to use and lose them. Al-Qaeda's numbers may be small, but their will is strong.
Lastly, these extremists have shown that as they can put the fear of God into non-believers, they can even more easily silence any protests from more moderate Muslims as well. For the extremists, anyone who is not a "real" Muslim, is no better than the infidels. Against this moral certainty, moderates quickly lose the conviction of their beliefs. Indeed, like a "liberal", a "moderate" by definition would struggle to match the conviction of their beliefs with that of an extremist ideologue.
This explains why extremists are gaining ground in places like Pakistan, and are able to take advantage of the instability caused from the Arab Spring. As "The Economist" article shows, Islamic extremists are benefitting from the Middle East and North Africa being led by a clutch of weak governments, mirroring (in a different form) the situation in many of the "liberal democracies" in the West.
Creating Islamic states by default
While the likes of Al-Qaeda state their eventual aim is the establishment of a "caliphate" that spans the Middle East, in practical terms the erosion of central state power in governments across the Islamic world (from Pakistan in the East, to Libya in the West) almost as easily fulfills that same aim. Entire sections of some Middle Eastern countries are effectively in the hands of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates; with state security so weak in places like Pakistan, Iraq ,Libya, Somalia, and Yemen (and non-existent in northern and eastern Syria).
Syria provides the clearest example of what happens when central government disappears, and the vacuum is filled with Islamic extremists: arbitrary justice, be-headings and so on.
Some parts of towns and cities in Britain more closely resemble Peshawar than Pontefract. While multiculturalism is to be applauded, this is not what exists in many parts of Britain. Instead, we have created pockets of monoculturalism - in others words, self-enclosed ghettos where the values (and even law) of Britain do not fully apply. It is this type of exclusive social environment that breeds extremism.
Moderate Muslims must be brave in facing down the extremists; and Western governments must be firm and consistent in the application of their laws and values.
If the West is to preserve its laws and its values, it needs to defend them at home to begin with.