By Faisal Irshaid
24 June 2014
The crisis in Iraq has highlighted the fact that English-speaking governments and media organisations cannot settle on what to call the al-Qaeda breakaway that has led the offensive by Sunni militants and tribesmen in the north and east of the country.
When referring to the jihadist group, UN and US officials have been using the acronym “Isil” or “I-S-I-L”, which they say stands for “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”.
The BBC News website uses the same translation, but a different acronym. It has instead opted for a more common one – “Isis” – based on the other widely used translations “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham” or “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”.
Some have also started referring to the group as “Da’ish” or “Daesh” a seemingly pejorative term that is based on an acronym formed from the letters of the name in Arabic, “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham”.
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The root of the Isil-Isis inconsistency is the Arabic word “al-Sham”.
At first, news outlets were unsure how to translate it into English, as it was not immediately clear what the group was actually referring to.
Al-Sham can be translated variously as “the Levant”, “Greater Syria”, “Syria” or even “Damascus”.
In a video posted by the group on social media last week, members stated that their goal was to restore an Islamic state, or caliphate, in a region including Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
The term al-Sham was commonly used during the rule of the Muslim Caliphs from the 7th Century to describe the area between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, Anatolia and Egypt.
It was used until the first half of the 20th Century, when the UK and France drew the new borders of the Middle East and created nation states.
The term “the Levant” had for centuries been used by English speakers to describe the eastern part of the Mediterranean, with its islands and the countries adjoining.
After World War One, colonial powers understood it to be the area comprising what is now Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and part of south-eastern Turkey.
However, the term’s colonial association means it would be unlikely to be endorsed by the jihadists. They would also probably object to using just “Syria”, as it suggests their aspirations are limited to the modern state’s borders. Various experts have therefore said that the word al-Sham should not be translated.
In videos posted online, members of the group and other militants in Iraq and Syria frequently refer to it simply as “al-Dawla”, Arabic for “the State”.
Some Arab media outlets and politicians have meanwhile started using the term Da’ish. It appears to have originated from posts by Syrian opposition activists and social media users.
Da’ish is not an Arabic word and the use of acronyms is not common in Arabic. Furthermore, the jihadist group objects to the term and has advised against its usage.