Evil -Very modern horrors devised for a digital age
No words can describe the revulsion to Islamist atrocities, but political leaders have to try to find some when terror strikes.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, was in London during the recent massacre of schoolchildren in Pakistan - and reached for a familiar analogy.
The pupils, he said, had been slain by "Taliban assassins who serve a dark and almost medieval vision".
British prime minister David Cameron also talks of a "medieval" threat as if we're witnessing 13th-century morality that has been somehow transplanted to the present day.
But the truth is far worse: the medieval world never knew such evil. This one is entirely new.
It's comforting to think that Isil and the Taliban are destined to fail because they are so anachronistic - that the modern world doesn't support such barbarism.
But the reverse is true. Modernity has made Isil possible: it is a creature of the digital era, a phenomenon as new as the social media on which it so heavily depends.
Its methods - beheading some captives, burning others alive - are designed to travel around the world by online video.
It recruits people from Cardiff to Brisbane by propaganda which can now go straight into the homes of millions.
Like al-Qa'ida, which it has surpassed and even appalled with its brutality, it is an evil of our times.
But even the brutality is new.
Take, for example, stoning to death - a slow means of execution that has made a comeback in recent years. We heard this week how a Syrian man in Raqqa was thrown from a seven-storey tower as a punishment for homosexuality - then was stoned after he survived. Last August, a man was stoned to death in Mosul on a charge of adultery. In October, there was a video of Isil militants stoning a woman to death.
"No one forced you, therefore you need to accept God's law, and to accept and submit to God," said her executor. "Islam is submitting to the will of God."
One might deduce from all of this that stoning to death is what Muslims did in medieval days.
In his brilliant exploration of Sharia law, Sadakat Kadri found that there is no Islamic precedent for this.
Stoning to death existed in legends and fables, but it was never the trademark of an Islamic legal system.
There are blood-curdling passages of the Koran (stoning is also advocated in certain parts of the Old Testament) but what matters is how the law is implemented.
And as far as five centuries of records from the Ottoman Empire can establish, stoning was authorised only once.
Its revival is a grotesquely modern phenomenon.
The ambitions of the so-called Islamic State are totalitarian, rather than medieval, in that they want to control every aspect of people's lives.
We know more about this due to a document its militants published last year, which was translated into English by the anti-extremist think tank Quilliam.
The document says women can only leave the house to attend religious studies, to tend (as doctors) to other women, or wage jihad.
The word 'Islamofascist' is overused, but makes a serious point: the people now beheading Iraqi Christians are implementing a variety of the kind of evil Europe confronted in the last century - right down to the virulent anti-Semitism.
It is no surprise that the Isil manifesto insists that women remain "hidden and veiled".
But it would be wrong to assume that this idea is treated with horror worldwide.
The popularity of the veil is a relatively recent trend; photographs of Palestinian and Afghan women in the Sixties show confident, unveiled Muslims looking and dressing much like their Western counterparts.
Things then started to change in Egypt with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and their promoting the veil as a sign of Islamic defiance against decadent Western culture.
What started as a symbol of political Islam steadily grew into a fashion, and with it the new notion that covering one's face was a sign of religious piety.
In 1983, an American academic named Arlene Elowe Macleod started a study of 85 working women in Egypt - of whom 29 were veiled when she began.
When she finished her study, five years later, 69 were veiled. They had been persuaded that, as one woman told her: "We Muslim women dress in a modest way, not like Western women."
The distinction was a new one. Other women told her they didn't have a reason to cover up, but they did because everyone else did. The quiet revolution of the veil has been gathering pace ever since.
Its popularity is a constant reminder that our version of liberty, equality and emancipation does not have the worldwide appeal that we sometimes like to believe. The veil has conquered Sarajevo, for example, a city that could easily have come into the West's orbit after the collapse of communist Yugoslavia. Not so long ago, there was scarcely a veil to be seen in the whole city.
When strategists in America were congratulating themselves on the "end of history", their counterparts in Saudi Arabia were funding the construction of mosques, and even paying people who worshipped there.
It suits us to imagine that history is going our way, and to dismiss the bad guys as an anachronism that is just too evil to survive - and will, therefore, soon be gone.
Such a lazy, complacent view of the world allows us to cut back on defence spending in the happy expectation of having fewer problems to solve.
But history goes in the direction that people make it go. The same is true with Isil in northern Iraq.
Once, neo-conservatives argued that democracy was bound to follow dictatorship if you give it a nudge.
The jihadists had other plans. Their ideology and methods may be barbaric, but they are very modern - and, so far, very effective.
There are now brigades of Kurdish and Christian soldiers planning to liberate towns and villages from the grip of Isil, but their success will depend on the quality and resources of their allies.
We're good at using words such as "medieval" but we're not, it seems, as confident about our ability actually to shape the future.
Which is a shame, because the Iraqis trying to move history in the right direction certainly need our help.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)
Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator