What to call Islamic State


Economist
Nov 15th 2015

The Economist explains

HOURS AFTER France and America pledged to ramp up the war against Islamic State (IS) in response to attacks in Paris that killed 129 and wounded more than 350, French warplanes began pounding the group’s stronghold in Raqqa, in north-eastern Syria.

The operation was conducted in co-ordination with American forces. The French and Americans seemed to be unified over the name they are using for this terrorist scourge, too.

Announcing strikes, the French defence ministry referred to a target “used by Daesh as a command post”.

Barack Obama used the same term when he spoke, at a G20 leaders’ summit in Turkey, of redoubling efforts “to bring about a peaceful transition in Syria and to eliminate Daesh as a force that can create so much pain and suffering for people in Paris, in Ankara, and in other parts of the globe.”

John Kerry, the American secretary of state, also called IS Daesh during a meeting in Vienna. The group has variously been dubbed ISIS, ISIL, IS and SIC too. Why the alphabet soup?

Part of the reason is that the group has evolved over time, changing its own name.

It started as a small but viciously effective part of the Sunni resistance to America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI. In 2007, following the death of its founder (and criticism from al-Qaeda for being too bloodthirsty), AQI rebranded itself the Islamic State in Iraq, or ISI.

It suffered setbacks on its home turf, but as Syria descended into civil war in 2011 ISI spotted an opportunity.

By 2013 it had inserted itself into eastern Syria and adopted a new name to match: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Increasing the confusion, ISIS changed its name yet again in June 2014, declaring itself the State of the Islamic Caliphate (SIC), a title that reflects its ambitions to rule over Muslims everywhere.

Translation presents another opportunity for acronyms to flourish. In its earlier incarnation as ISIS, the group had sought to challenge “colonialist” borders by using an old Arab geographical term—al-Sham—that applies either to the Syrian capital, Damascus, or to the wider region of the Levant; hence the official American preference for calling it Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, rather than ISIS. The Arabic for this, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil ’Iraq wal-Sham, can be abbreviated to Daesh, just as the Palestinian group Hamas (which means “zeal”) is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, or Islamic Resistance Movement. Daesh is the name that has widely stuck among Arabs, although the group’s own members call it simply the State, al-Dawla, for short, and threaten with lashes those who use Daesh. (Daesh and §sh are one and the same acronym in Arabic, merely transliterated differently for the Roman script.)

There is a long history of pinning unpleasant-sounding names on unpleasant people. Rather as the term Nazi caught on in English partly because of its resonance with words such as “nasty”, Daesh rolls pleasurably off Arab tongues as a close cousin of words meaning to stomp, crush, smash into, or scrub. Picking up on this, France has officially adopted the term for government use; its foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, has explained that Daesh has the added advantage of not granting the group the dignity of being called a state. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, has cast similar aspersions, denouncing the group as a “Non-Islamic Non-State”. Rather than obediently adopting the acronym NINS, this newspaper has chosen for the time being to continue calling the group simply Islamic State (IS).

This article was originally published in 2014 in a different form; it has been updated and republished

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