In New Front Against Islamic State, Dictionary Becomes a Weapon

New York Times
October 2, 2014

PARIS — After the French mountaineering guide Hervé Gourdel was beheaded by an Algerian jihadist group aligned with the Islamic State last month, hundreds of Muslims gathered outside the Great Mosque of Paris to express their revulsion over the brutality of a group whose name and ideology, they said, was an insult to Muslims everywhere.

Some carried placards with the hashtag #NotInMyName, which has become a rallying cry on Twitter against the Islamic State.

Ahmet Ogras, vice president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, which called for the protest on Sept. 26, said that the now-common use of the name Islamic State threatened to stigmatize France’s Muslims, Europe’s largest Muslim community. He also said that the name conferred unwarranted legitimacy on a group carrying out killings in the name of Islam.

“This is not a state; this is a terrorist organization,” he added. “I call them terrorists because that’s what they are. One has to call a dog a dog. One can’t play with words.”

As the United States-led battle against radical forces rages in Iraq and Syria, a new linguistic front is emerging. Muslim groups in Europe and beyond are lashing out at the Islamic State in protests and on social media, advocating alternative ways to refer to the militants, now known by an alphabet soup of labels including ISIS, ISIL, IS and SIC.

In a sign of the semantic war underway, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, last week railed against the Islamic State by calling it the “Un-Islamic Nonstate,” though few expect that the acronym UINS will have much staying power.

Those kinds of protests against the Islamic State were echoed in Britain, where members of the Islamic Society of Britain and the Association of British Muslims last month wrote an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron suggesting that the group should be referred to instead as the “Un-Islamic State” or UIS. Continued use of the name Islamic State would only further radicalize young Muslims, they said.

France, which has joined the United States-led airstrikes against the group in Iraq and is fighting a propaganda battle against the group at home, has been leading the rebranding. The Interior Ministry said Tuesday that the number of those who traveled or planned to travel to Syria or Iraq to fight in the region had risen to about 1,000, making it all the more urgent for the government to discredit the militants.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced last month that the government would avoid the term Islamic State or its alternatives, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and instead refer to the militant group as Daesh, the acronym many Arabic speakers use, which sounds like a word meaning to crush.

Addressing the National Assembly, Mr. Fabius declared that the Islamic State’s claim to represent a caliphate — a state governed by Islamic principles — in Syria and Iraq was geopolitically and linguistically false.

“This is a terrorist group and not a state,” he said. “I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists.” Calling on news organizations to follow his lead, he added, “The Arabs call it Daesh, and I will be calling them the Daesh Cutthroats.”

The term Daesh — also sometimes referred to as Da’ish — is an acronym of the group’s Arabic name, Al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, according to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, who studies the Islamic State and is now a researcher with the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. It is also used without being meant as an insult.

But, Mr. Tamimi said, the acronym has also been embraced by critics of the group, as the word could have negative connotations in the Arab world, since it is close to the word daes, meaning to tread underfoot, trample or crush. (Several residents of Mosul, Iraq, which fell to the Islamic State in June, told The Associated Press that the Sunni militant group was so incensed about the use of the term Daesh that members threatened to cut off the tongues of anyone who uttered it.)

In the United States, Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington, said his group had settled on ISIS, though he personally referred to the group as “Daesh — though sometimes I say ‘the Evil State.’  ” Because of its similarity to daes, he explained, “it doesn’t sound good.”

Several representatives of American Islamic associations said that any of the names used for the group were acceptable so long as they did not include the term Islamic. Salam al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, based in Los Angeles, said his group had stuck with the acronym ISIS “because we believe by using Islam in any description of these groups, it’s exactly what they want — a religious validation of what they’re doing.”

President Obama has made it clear why he shuns the formulation Islamic State. “ISIL is not Islamic,” he told a national television audience in early September, later adding, “ISIL is certainly not a state.” The White House and State Department have been slightly less clear about why they embraced the acronym ISIL, rather than ISIS.

Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London, noted that the term Daesh was unlikely to resonate internationally since the acronym ISIS more easily rolled off the tongue. Nor, he argued, is it likely to have much effect on the thousands of Westerners keen to join the group in Syria and Iraq, who are contemptuous of Western governments and news media.

“While it is important to make clear that ISIS does not represent mainstream Islam, I don’t think Daesh is really going to catch on in the West, and the French have already lost the battle of the acronyms,” he said. “Merely uttering the words Islamic State doesn’t mean you recognize it as a state. People understand that they are impostors and that a name is just a name.”

Brian Knowlton contributed reporting from Washington, and Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura from London.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Friday, 3 October 2014 - 5:16 pm

    Like it or not, so called moderates of Islam has to now mimick the outrage their community has traditionally done against Israel and Western powers – but against IS or they just lose more than they have ever lost..

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