The debate over what to call the Islamist extremist group that controls parts of Iraq and Syria has been raging for well over a year now. The Washington Post, among others, now refers to it as the Islamic State, a name the group itself has used. However, others prefer to call it by its old name and its acronym, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The U.S. government, meanwhile, uses a different translation from the Arabic original, and refers to it as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
It may seem like much ado about nothing, but many people feel that the symbolism of what the group is called is vitally important. This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron let it be known he was one of those people during an interview with the BBC's "Today" program.
"I wish the BBC would stop calling it 'Islamic State' because it is not an Islamic state,” Cameron said during an interview about the deadly attack in Tunisia last week. "'So-called' or ISIL is better."
Cameron's logic is simple: Calling the group "Islamic State" defers upon it a religious legitimacy and sense of statehood that should be denied. Given the widespread, if wrongheaded, debate over whether the groups' vile brutality can or should be linked to a wider Islamic history and community, it's a powerful argument.
The British prime minister isn't the first person to argue this. Last year, Egypt's leading Islamic authority, Dar al-Ifta, called on the world's media to stop using the term, instead suggesting a new term: “Al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria” or QSIS. Around the same time, a group of British imams called on Cameron himself to stop calling the group "Islamic State," and instead refer to them as the "Un-Islamic State" instead.
Perhaps the most popular alternative name for the group has been 'Daesh,' a transliteration of the an Arabic word (داعش), which is an acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham (itself a transliteration of the group's Arabic name: الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام) and widely used in the Middle East. The use of this name has one big thing going for it: The group is said to hate it (perhaps due to similarity to another Arabic word, دعس, or Das, which means to trample down). The French government makes a point of using this name, and Secretary of State John Kerry has used it frequently.
Cameron's suggestion put the BBC in an uneasy position. While the news organization is independent from the British government, it is also a public-service broadcaster, funded largely by a television license fee that is set by politicians. The BBC has come under pressure from the British government during times of conflict before, notably during the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 and during the Falklands war of 1982.
Things became more complicated on Monday when more than 120 British MPs signed a letter that asked the BBC and other broadcasters to stop using the term "the Islamic State" and refer to the group as "Daesh." The letter, authored by Conservative Party MP Rehman Chishti, said that the BBC "has the opportunity to lead on this issue and call this organization what it really is rather than allowing it to be linked by religion." In a column in the Dundee Courier, one of the signatories of the letter, former Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, expanded upon this. “We should start by understanding that in a propaganda war language is crucial," Salmond wrote.
This all was a step further than Cameron had suggested, and Chishti wrote separately to the prime minister to ask that the British government use Daesh as well. In parliament on Monday, Cameron demurred and suggested that he thought ISIL was far enough.
The BBC pledged to review how it referred to the group and ultimately decided it wouldn't budge. On Wednesday the Times of London reported that the BBC planned to stick with the "Islamic State," with director general Lord Hall quoted as saying that some of the names suggested were "pejorative." Hall added that the broadcaster needed to "preserve the BBC's impartiality" and stick with the name that the group itself used. It would, however, refer to them as the "Islamic State group" to make clear it was not a true state, the Times reported.
The BBC's Mark Mardell expanded upon this in an article published online. "It seems to me, once we start passing comment on the accuracy of the names people call their organisations, we will constantly be expected to make value judgements," Mardell wrote, before asking if China was really a "People's Republic" as an example.
Not everyone was pleased with the decision. In parliament on Thursday, Chishti said the response was "not worth the paper it's written on," while MP Chris Grayling compared it to being impartial to the Nazis. But others offered their support: Remarkably, the BBC won praise from the generally BBC-bashing Daily Mail newspaper, who gave it "full marks" for resisting political pressure. "Will MPs stop fussing irrelevantly about what to call them – and turn their minds to defeating them?" the newspaper wrote in an editorial on Thursday.
Perhaps the naming of the group really is irrelevant, but the debate does reflect the shifting concerns about it in Britain. While much attention has been paid to the propaganda battle against the group, at points Cameron's own rhetoric has been criticized.
And in the aftermath of the attack in Tunisia that left scores of British tourists dead, there are many in Britain feel as if their country isn't taking enough practical military action to defeat the group.
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