What’s in a name?

To David Cameron and Barack Obama it's ISIL. To others it's ISIS, IS, Daesh or a ‘death cult’. What should policymakers call the extremist group?

Alex Szokalski

National security | Australia, Asia, The World

2 December 2015

World leaders are agreeing to disagree on how to refer to the group, and in some cases getting it plain wrong, writes Alex Szokalski.

World leaders have their work cut out for them taking a united front in tackling the ever-growing threat that violent extremism poses, but there’s one area where our confused political leaders are agreeing to disagree – how to refer to one extremist group in particular.

Deposed Australian prime minister Tony Abbott was fond of using the term ‘death cult’, while others such as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Opposition leader Bill Shorten, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron and The United States President Barack Obama can’t quite seem to agree on the usage of ISIS, ISIL, IS or Daesh (or even Dash).

The United Nations, the US State department and President Obama himself all refer to this group as ISIL. The basis for this supposedly comes from English terminology. In Arabic, the group is called: Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. With al-sham, in particular, referring to southern Turkey, Syria and Egypt. Standard English refers to this territory as ‘the Levant’, hence the term ISIL.

In an article published by The Guardian, David Cameron scolds the BBC for the use of the term ISIS instead of ISIL. Further adding in the House of Commons that rather than using the term ‘Daesh’, they should be referred to as ISIL, because ISIL is better than IS (Islamic State) and “they are neither Islamic nor a state”.

In any usage of terms ISIS or ISIL, the IS in the name stands for ‘Islamic State’, either Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Syria) respectively. Coming from a world leader, this inability to unpick acronyms is hardly inspiring, nor does it give a sense of confidence in his (and his government’s) understanding of and/or ability to combat this group.

More on this: "Should Australia bomb IS in Syria?"
To understand the logic behind the referencing of this group, we should examine the term ‘The Levant’. The Levant originated in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, being used in Italian maritime commerce to refer to the Eastern Mediterranean of Greece, Anatolia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. In modern times, the term more precisely refers to the lands of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan and the Island of Cypress.

The logic of using ISIL over ISIS is fatally flawed, as this is precisely the kind of terminology that will inflate the ego of Daesh and bolster the image the group portrays on social media, because this gives legitimacy to the claim of being a ‘state’. ISIS simply refers to an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq, where, as the usage of ISIL implies, Daesh have control of a much larger geographical area, which is simply not the case. In any case, the usages of ISIS, ISIL or IS, should not be continued as the group is not representative of Islam nor Muslims.

The French government has, however, adopted the usage of the term Daesh. This term is the shorthand of the group’s name, Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham and between those who use it, the spelling appears to vary between, Daesh, DAIISH and Da’esh.

French President Francois Hollande believes that its usage diminishes the group’s validity of being a legitimate state. France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is even more scathing, yet precise in his language, stating that, “this is a terrorist group, not a state” … “the term ‘Islamic State’ blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists”.

Groups like Daesh have used social media in much the same way that a legitimate company exposes their product to the wider world. The group tries to portray meaning and purpose – a narrative to those who feel lost and marginalised. While hard power will need to be used, the government would do well to realise that soft power – counter-narratives and even the way we craft our speech in regards to this group – will have to change.

Daesh refers to itself as the ‘Islamic State’ or IS, to boost its morale, lift its ego and more importantly to give the group legitimacy. By continuing to refer to them as such, even through the terms ISIS or ISIL, we, unfortunately, assist them in this.

It may only be a small step, but it will damage their image and ego when they are called a name they detest, rather than by that which they claim.

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One Response

  1. Shanti says:

    Great article! Informative and engaging.

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