If the developing stories about the Islamic State — known widely as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — have taught us anything, it is that far, far more things are named ISIS than would ever have occurred to you. Al-Qaeda at least had the advantage of sharing names with no one besides possibly “I’ll Cater!,” a catering company, but that would be easier to fix because I’ll Cater was a silly name.
Now, the think tank ISIS (Institute for Science and International Security) is complaining about the use of its name.
In order to report on this development, my colleague Al Kamen got into the habit of addressing the two as “Good ISIS” and “Bad ISIS,” but he admitted this was not sustainable.
At least with Bad ISIS, we know which one we’re talking about.
But the trouble is that there are so many Good ISISes. There’s not just the Institute for Science and International Security. There’s “Archer’s” fictional ISIS, which has had difficulties of its own lately. There’s Isis, the contestant on “America’s Next Top Model.” There’s ISIS, the name of the Egyptian goddess if you leave your caps lock on by mistake.
There are few traditions so frustrating as when a group of modern-day evildoers takes a nice symbol or harmless word that has been around for centuries and twist it to its purposes. The swastika had been around for centuries before the Nazis got their hands on it. But the instant they did? Thousands of years down the drain. Just try walking around with one on your arm now and not making a lot of bald, angry friends.
This just happens, though. History takes and takes and does not give all names back.
And now, when fewer and fewer things are truly Google Unique, it can be a serious struggle to carve out space of your own. There is another Alexandra Petri out there, who, I assume in order to make it clear that she is not responsible for any of my non-state actions, has started using her middle initial. (Hi, other A! Sorry about that! I have enjoyed your articles about the People You Meet When You Travel!)
Maybe we need name insurance. You can tough it out knowing you’re living in a section of the alphabet prone to hurricane names, but it seems unfair that you should be blindsided by militant groups. They haven’t even had to buy domain names or make stationery. (This keeps coming back to stationery and logos, but you’d keep coming back too if you’d studied the nice logo on the plaintive note from ISIS (Think Tank, Good). There must be some way of guarding against these losses, beyond writing these plaintive letters.
ISIS (Institute) pleads: “But the widespread, persistent use of the acronym ISIS to refer to this terrorist organization continues to cause considerable confusion and is causing reputational harm to the many organizations and entities that also use this acronym. The Institute for Science and International Security, a non-profit institution which has used the acronym ISIS since 1993, would like to urge media and foreign policy analysts to no longer refer to Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham by the name ‘ISIS’ but to choose another alternative.”
I know what you’re thinking. “Yes! ISIS (Institute ISIS) should get precedence because it probably had stationery. And a Web site! Do you think ISIS (bad ISIS) has stationery? Nice stationery with a little squiggle on one side?”
But still I can’t help wondering how this reputation damage works. Yes, the name ISIS is being blackened by the activities of the militant group. No dispute there. And I understand that the association of the name in people’s minds is changing in unfortunate ways.
But “confusion”? Who is confused? Is there really someone out there who sees that ISIS has committed another brutal murder and angrily tears up a note about Science and Security, murmuring, “How DARE these people try to talk to me about science when their agents in the field are doing such things?” If you are conducting your highly regarded bipartisan institute for science in such a way that when a militant group does something horrible, the neighbors shrug and say, “You never know with some people. The Institute was always very polite and quiet, but kept to itself” — there may be larger problems.