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What’s In a Name? Debating the Islamic State Moniker(s)

  • Cecily Hilleary

Image taken from recently released video shows man purported to be Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIL's reclusive leader, making what would be his first public appearance at a mosque in the center of Iraq's second city, Mosul July 5, 2014.

Image taken from recently released video shows man purported to be Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIL's reclusive leader, making what would be his first public appearance at a mosque in the center of Iraq's second city, Mosul July 5, 2014.

Three months ago, Omar Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the militant Islamist group that has captured cities and towns in Syria and Iraq, announced a restored “Islamic State.”

But debate continues over how to refer to the jihadist movement.

The U.S. officially calls it "ISIL" — the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant; so, too, does Britain. France has settled on “Daesh,” a common Arabic name for the group, whereas the U.N. has decided on “ISIS”: Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Meanwhile, journalists and editors struggle with wordy phrases such as "the self-styled Islamic State group.” So why can’t we all simply agree and settle on a single standard?

ISIS vs. ISIL

The group originally called itself al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham, translated as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

Contrary to common assumption, Sham does not refer just to Syria, but the eastern crescent of the Mediterranean, from Istanbul west to Egypt, including Cyprus and Israel. Sham is derived from an Arabic root word meaning "left" or "north,” but, to Muslims, it’s more than a geographic designation. It is the historic caliphate whose capital was Damascus.

In his June 29 announcement of a restored “caliphate,” however, Islamic State (IS) spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani changed the group’s name.

“Accordingly,” he said, “'the Iraq and Sham' in the name of the Islamic State is henceforth removed from all official deliberations and communications, and the official name is the Islamic State from the date of this declaration.”

​In other words, Adnani was lifting colonial borders and declaring a hypothethical nation-state for all devout Sunni Muslims, and this in turn implies expansionist ambitions.

The French dubbed the region Levant — that is, “where the sun rises” — a purely geographic term that denotes the areas it colonized, says Musa Al-Gharbi, a researcher at Arizona University’s Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts. For many, “Levant” is an easier concept to grasp than “Sham” — hence, "ISIL."

That’s the name the Obama Administration uses. As outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center Matthew Olsen explained in early September, referring to the “Islamic State” only validates the group’s claims to political and religious legitimacy.

Al-Gharbi says referring to the group as ISIL rather than the "Islamic State" reflects the White House's desire to separate the extremist movement from the religion, Islam."

Islamic State

It’s short, sweet, takes up little column space and it is what the group has named itself. But the problem is that the name implies membership of all Muslims and nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the Islamic State is selective, rejecting all who do not adhere to a strict, literal interpretation of the Koran. That would include Shiite, apostates, heretics and Muslims who have adapted modern ways, who the IS collectively dismisses as kuffar, “disbelievers.”

It’s a designation that is costing many Muslim IS opponents their lives.

Even so, many media outlets have opted to use the phrase, including the Associated Press, Reuters, major newspapers like The New York Times, as well as the VOA, which most often refers to the group as Islamic State militants.

“VOA as a rule tries to conform to the style policies of the Associated Press unless there is a good reason to do otherwise because that is the standard for American media and because it makes it easier to be consistent,” said David Jones, VOA's Central News division head.

Beyond that, adds Jones, it is the name chosen by the group itself. “We feel it reflects the global ambitions of the group better than the alternatives — Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.”

Other editors make the case that avoiding the term “Islamic State” reflects political bias.

“The rationale is that this is the group’s self-designated name, even if we think the group is despicable,” said Foreign Policy (FP) copy chief Preeti Aroon. “Also, we don’t want readers to think Foreign Policy is oblivious to the name change.”

That said, she does make some exceptions.

“Sometimes FP does use ISIS in headlines and tweets because it’s concise and catchier,” Aroon said. “Style rules shouldn’t be rigid; there needs to be some allowance for poetic license. Also, due to the volume of articles FP publishes, I can’t personally copy-edit each one, so ‘style violations’ such as ISIS will sometimes appear in FP articles."

The French solution

Recently, France decided that it would use the term “Daesh,” as the alternatives “blur the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists.”

DAESH is an approximate acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham.

“In Arabic, when you put those letters together and pronounce them as one syllable,” Gharbi said, “it sounds like the Arabic verb which means to crush or to tread on, and that’s why al-Daesh is used in a lot of Middle Eastern countries as a perjorative for the group.”

It’s a name the IS group hates, he says.

“They’ve vowed to cut out the tongues from anyone who calls them that.”

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