How we name things is significant, because to name something is to define it, to own its meaning, and to persuade people to see it through the lens the namer wants. The title ISIS chooses for itself shows how it wants to be seen, while monikers that others use reflect how they want the group to be perceived — often two diametrically opposed positions.
“These are important words to parse properly. It’s really important to reflect how people see the same events through different prisms,” said Michael Slackman, international managing editor for The New York Times, in an interview. Slackman is charged with helping make some of those calls, and the paper has made the decision to refer to the group as “Islamic State.”
ISIS is the English-translated acronym for al-dowla al-islaamiyya fii-il-i’raaq wa-ash-shaam, or “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” (The actual spelling varies, reflecting the imprecision of rendering the sounds of Arabic words into English.) ISIL or ISL are similar, although the final letter stands for “Levant” referring to a much larger swathe of territory. While people disagree as to its exact boundaries, it’s generally understood to encompass at least part or all of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon.
What the words actually mean may be less important than what they convey. The name Daesh — which the group itself strongly objects to, even threatening to cut off the tongue of anyone heard using it — is simply the Romanization of an acronym in Arabic for exactly the same words as underly ISIS. Yet members of the Islamic State find the term intolerable. Acronyms are unusual in Arabic, meaning that the name sounds like a made-up, and hence illegitimate, word. And when pronounced, Daesh just one sound away from an Arabic word that suggests something that “crushes,” “tramples,” or “sows discord,” and is easy to lampoon. It would be as if the acronym for Islamic state were S.H.I.D., writes Alice Guthrie, former Arabic translator-in-residence at the Free Word Centre.
Arab state governments and more moderate Muslims reject the word “caliphate” for its implications as much as its meaning. The word literally means a state or territory governed by a caliph, a Muslim leader both spiritual and civil — much like a Pope and a king all in one. But the word is steeped in Islamic history and suggest a grandeur, validity, and sense of destiny. A caliph’s legitimacy is considered to stretch all the way back to the prophet Mohammed, who died in the 7th century. Roughly — but not exactly — as if some separatist group in North America claimed to be establishing a religiously-based “kingdom” or “monarchy” in Arizona or Saskatchewan.
Governments, journalists and academics are split on word choice.
“I understand why political leaders would want to choose [which name to use],” says William McCants, author of The ISIS Apocalypse, published this September, and director of the project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t understand the pressure for academics to follow suit. It’s one thing for politicians to shape perception. I’m looking for a more neutral way to describe an organization.” He notes that in academia, it’s usual to call groups what they call themselves.
McCants uses the term “Islamic State” in his book: “It’s the one consistent part of their name, which has changed over the years. I chose not to confuse people.”
Governments are trying to shift the public perception of the group, and win listeners over to their side of the fight.
U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry has purposefully used the term Daesh in at least one speech, while in his explanation of France’s switch to that title, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said last year that: “This is a terrorist group, and not a state.” Ban Ki-Moon issued a similar rejection of the words “Islamic” and “state,” saying that the group “[has] nothing to do with Islam, and they certainly do not represent a state.” Earlier this year, Egypt’s guide for foreign media, tweeted by a CBS correspondent, suggested strongly negative terms.
Journalists largely believe their job is to explain, not persuade.
“The name is Islamic State,” says the New York Times’ Slackman, noting that this is what the group has designated itself. “Certainly there are many Muslims and non-Muslims alike who find it offensive, but that’s their name. We have a pretty straightforward policy here. We use the name that individuals and organizations select for themselves and try to explain it” in context.
The Associated Press, whose style guide is widely used by media organizations, tries to select for strict, neutral, accuracy. It suggests the term “Islamic State group” — which assigns the body the name it prefers, but appends “group” because “we think it’s important to indicate it’s not a state by normal criteria,” according to Thomas Kent, AP’s standards editor.
Such a tug of war over a group or movement’s name is certainly not the first or even, perhaps, the most complex over such freighted word choices. In the longstanding conflict between Israel and Palestinians, do people “occupy,” “annex” or “reclaim” territory? Are Palestinians killed in Arab-Israeli political violence “terrorists” (according to Israel) or “martyrs” (as Palestinian groups assert)? Should the term be “illegal immigrant” or “undocumented,” or a third choice that attempts to explain the situation with precision?
The AP again favors more neutral choices like “attackers,” “gunmen,” or “suicide bombers.” “It’s best to be specific,” Kent says.
For some, the choice of terms is simply pragmatic. David Ignatius, a foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post, calls the group “The Islamic State” because that’s the way the paper’s editors, who turn to Associated Press for guidance, largely prefer. (Left to his own devices, Ignatius would call them “ISIS.”)
Thomas Sanderson, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, uses ISIS because it’s the name he used originally and because “it rolls off the tongue pretty easily.” After all, speakers of Western languages frequently mis-pronounce DA’ESH. (There is a sound in Arabic, called a “voiced pharyngeal fricative” that is represented by the apostrophe.) “There is really no English equivalent sound, and English speakers often do not hear or recognize this sound, so it tends to disappear in ordinary English transcription of Arabic words,” says Karin Ryding, emerita professor of Arab linguistics at Georgetown University.
For others, however, the words are less important than what they see happening on the ground. “I can understand why Muslims would resist ‘caliphate’. I understand why states would want to deny statehood to the Islamic State,” says McCants, who also advised the State Department on countering violent extremism. “But they have successfully established a state. It seems odd to argue that you can deny that reality by not naming it as such.”
The words are hard to choose because they carry with them deeply held beliefs and represent such high stakes: For the militant groups, it is their very legitimacy. For Western states, their safety and open societies. For journalists, the right to stand apart from both.