Debating What to Call the Terrorist Organization That Goes by Many Names

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You say ISIS, I say Daesh: No one seems to be able to make up their mind on what to call the terrorist organization that devastated France on Friday evening as part of a complex strategy that spans the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The debate over what to call the organization isn’t one of mere semantics, however, as it has significant implications depending on which term people use. Even the President of the United States has gotten involved in the discussion over what to call it, as have other world leaders and rhetoricians. Which one will you settle on?

ISIS, IS, ISIL, QSIS and Daesh are all acronyms – and as is common with acronyms, some of them have secondary connotations as well, like ISIS, which is also the name of an Ancient Egyptian goddess and a name still in use in some regions of the world. Daesh similarly spells out a word, but more about that in a minute. Before we plunge into different terms in use to refer to the organization, it helps to know what it’s called in long form. The Arabic name is typically transliterated to ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī ‘l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām, or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in English. The organization is thinking big, claiming that it wants to restore an Islamic caliphate to the region and in some cases declaring that it’s a state. This belief is important, so remember it as we delve further into the semantics of what to call the organization.

The various English derivations are pretty obvious when you look at the English translation. It might be Islamic State (IS) as a shorthand and the group’s preferred term now that it claims it is breaking down borders and creating a state of much larger scope, ISIL as a full acronym, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syrian (ISIS), an alternate translation. (We’ll get to QSIS in a little bit.) In Arabic, the group’s name is shortened to Da’ish or, for the convenience of English speakers who don’t typically use this kind of linguistic structure, Daesh. Now that we understand where this multitude of terms for the same organization come from, why does the one we use matter?

ISIS, ISIL and IS follow the common practice of translating the names of foreign organizations into English and using the subsequent acronyms – like Médicins sans Frontierès (MSF), better known to many Americans as Doctors Without Borders. The practice is immensely helpful as it tells people what the organization does and what it stands for, and ISIS is pretty clear. It tells the reader that the organization believes itself to be a state actor with authority over all Muslims worldwide. But that’s not actually the case. Huge numbers of respected Muslim leaders, cultural commentators, and others across the Muslim cultural and political spectrum have argued that they reject the organization’s position as a caliphate, considering it “void,” and they join millions of Muslims worldwide who condemn ISIS and its policies. Some have gone an additional step, warning that supporting ISIS is haram (forbidden), meaning that ISIS supporters are failing to live by Muslim values. (Think non-kosher or taboo when you hear haram.) Some Muslims refer to ISIS and followers as khawarij – people who have left Islam to pursue an extremist agenda, named after a historical secessionist movement.

In a speech last year, President Obama said: “Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates.” His statement reflected a direct pushback on the organization’s rhetoric, but it also made an important distinction, referencing the fact that organizations can’t just declare themselves states: They have to be recognized by the international community, which ISIS is not. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot, Secretary of State John Kerry, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and others refuse to refer to the group as ISIS, IS or ISIL, preferring Daesh, arguing that they don’t want to legitimize the group.

What’s in an acronym? A lot, actually. Arabic, like many languages, relies heavily on inflections. Get a vowel wrong and you’re not talking a mispronunciation, but an entirely new word. And depending on how you say Daesh, you might be referring to “trampling down and crushing” or bigotry. The organization, which prides itself on advancing a purer form of Islam that will sweep out lesser sects and promote the rise of a worldwide caliphate, doesn’t like hearing people refer to it this way. The group wants people to refer to it as Islamic State in English, or ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah in Arabic, and has allegedly threatened to cut out the tongues of those caught using the “Daesh” acronym in public. It could have gotten around the bad PR image by choosing a different name, of course – but in a way, the battle over the name has become part of its well-oiled propaganda machine, designed to force communities to bow to its influences. When even using the wrong word makes you a target for violence, it heightens a culture of fear.

So what about QSIS, meaning al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria? Egyptian authorities put the term forward as yet another alternative. This particular forced rebranding hasn’t been a wild success, but it does accurately reflect the group’s status. As President Obama noted, the group is an extremist splinter of al-Qaeda, which once itself occupied the position of Terrorist Organization Number One. It might not be popular with members of the organization, but it’s highly appropriate. However, it doesn’t seem to have captured the attention of the global community.

In this case, the term you use can actually matter, because the name directly feeds into the rhetoric and ideas surrounding the group. The media as well as the public are engaged in brisk debate over the best terminology to adopt. Everyone will have to make up their minds when it comes to the language they’d prefer to use to refer to an organization that has done things like lead children in the areas it’s controlling to develop a game called “one two three airstrike,” in which they all fall to the ground, mimicking the response to real-world airstrikes and reflecting the day-to-day lives of children under its influence.