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ISIS or ISIL? The debate over what to call Iraq’s terror group

If you're following the ongoing crisis in Iraq, you've probably encountered the conflicting acronyms used for the jihadist group storming through the country. The Washington Post has been referring to the organization as ISIS, shorthand for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This is how most news organizations that operate in English began identifying the outfit when it emerged as a dangerous fighting force two years ago, launching terror strikes and carving out territory amid the Syrian civil war.

But the acronym that's now deployed by many agencies as well as the United Nations and the U.S. State Department — and President Obama — is ISIL, for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Here's how the Associated Press justified switching its acronym style from ISIS to ISIL.

In Arabic, the group is known as Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The term “al-Sham” refers to a region stretching from southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt (also including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan). The group’s stated goal is to restore an Islamic state, or caliphate, in this entire area.

The standard English term for this broad territory is “the Levant.” Therefore, AP’s translation of the group’s name is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

But in a smart blog post, Syrian analyst Hassan Hassan stresses the distinction between "al-Sham" and "Bilad al-Sham"; the former is often used to signify Syria or Damascus, the latter the wider Levant. He also makes this astute point about the usage of the term "the Levant," which is slightly dated:

If we concede again that "al-Sham" means not only Syria, then there is a name for that: Greater Syria. When we use the older term "Levant", that should be used alongside the older name "Mesopotamia" for Iraq. When you use modern "Iraq", use the modern term "Greater Syria" — in that case, it's the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (still ISIS).

In any case, neither ISIS nor ISIL are as accurate as "DAIISH," the Arabic shorthand for the group that no one in the English-language press seems to use. ISIS has become part of the English-language media's common parlance and has something of a ring to it — it's like the ancient Near Eastern goddess. So switching to ISIL is, if nothing else, a bit jarring.

Most of the time, we deploy acronyms that preserve the wording of non-English languages. Many English-language readers following South Asian politics will know the upstart Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party as the PTI, not the Movement for Justice (which is what Washington Post style dictates). The main ruling party in Algeria is almost always referred to as the FLN — for Front de Libération Nationale — and not by what would be its English equivalent, the NLF. And there are myriad more examples.

In the larger battlefield of copy style controversies, the distinction between ISIS or ISIL is not so great.

In other circumstances, such decisions carry genuine political freight: For decades, many news outlets have kept using Burma to identify the former British colony in Southeast Asia rather than Myanmar, the name for the nation that was put into place by a junta that was long an international pariah. In recent years, as the country's slow transition to democracy has taken effect, we've seen more institutions making the switch. Post style dictates Burma, with a nod to how the country is also known as Myanmar.

This post has been updated from the original. (HT @lizsly)

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.



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