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Why ISIS Isn't 'ISIS' or 'Islamic State'

Why it might be a good idea to call the militant group by it its Arabic acronym, which they really, really don't like.
Image: Vice News

The terrorist group-turned-wannabe-nation-state currently rampaging parts of the Middle East—it goes by names like ISIS, ISIL, and Islamic State—has killed over 9,300 civilians by last count, and taken over a swath of land the size of Indiana.

Recently, I heard a friend lament another long shadow that the group has cast over his world: his two-year-old daughter's name is Isis.

She was named after the ancient Egyptian goddess, ideal mother and wife, patroness of nature and magic. Pagans, who still worship her, aren't pleased at the militant group's moniker. Egyptians are also unamused. In August, Egypt's leading Islamic authority, incensed at the group's besmirching of both a goddess and a religion, urged the media to avoid "ISIS" entirely, and go with QSIS instead: "Al-Qaida Separatists in Iraq and Syria." It even started a Facebook group: "Call it QS not IS." (It now has 13,000 Likes.)


Like net neutrality, we don't really know what to call them. Is it ISIS, for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or is it the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham ("Al Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa'al Sham"), referring to the region that includes Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Kuwait? Or is it, if we translate "al-Sham" as "the Levant," actually called ISIL, the way Obama says it? How about Daesh—pronounced "Dah-ESH"—the same acronym in Arabic?

For its part, since late summer the terror group has insisted on being called simply the Islamic State, or al-Dawlah al-Islamīyah, or IS, which implies a new set of borders and suggests some kind of a government.

Of course, sticklers for precision and for reasoned religion or politics largely do not agree with that name. Last month, members of the Islamic Society of Britain and the Association of British Muslims wrote an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron suggesting the group be called the "Un-Islamic State" or UIS. The Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, had his own suggestion: "Non-Islamic Non-State," or NINS for short.

Listen to how the media describes the group and it's hard not to think of the artist formerly known as "the artist formerly known as Prince." On first reference, NPR reporters refer to "the so-called Islamic State," "the self-proclaimed Islamic State," or sometimes the clunky but more interesting "the group calling itself the Islamic State," before switching to "ISIS." UPI introduces the group similarly, but mostly uses "the Islamic State group," which is the name the AP has also settled on after a number of other names. The muddled brand even made it into a joke on a recent SNL send up of the TV show "Shark Tank," in which one judge just couldn't get past the ISIS/ISIL confusion.


So far, though, the stickiest moniker by far has been ISIS. In August, a think tank measured the group's mentions on Twitter and found that "ISIS" had been mentioned 1,371,277 times over the previous 30 day period, while "Islamic State" was mentioned only 193,222 times. In Arabic, "Daesh" (داعش), with 1,481,172 mentions, also won out over the Arabic for "Islamic State" (الدولة الإسلامية) by a factor of ten.

When I compared ISIS to other names in terms of Google searches over the past three months, it was a clear winner, with its biggest spike in late August.

The New York Times says "the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL," but mainly uses ISIS. ISIS is the preferred term for CNN, NBC, The Atlantic, Der Spiegel, the Journal, and The New Yorker. Obama and Al Jazeera English say ISIL. The Economist and The Washington Post and the BBC and the Center for New American Security can often be heard saying "Islamic State" and "IS." Our colleagues at Vice News tend toward ISIS, but its documentary is called simply "The Islamic State." (A number of outlets have changed their rendition of the militant group's name at least twice; this list may already be outdated.)

The term that's rarely used in the west, but throughout the Arab world, is the Arabic acronym for ISIS, Daesh, or "داعش." This is also the term the group hates the most.

In part, that's because it sounds similar to the Arabic "Daes" ("one who crushes something underfoot") and "Dahes" ("one who sows discord"). It can also be taken to mean "a bigot who imposes his view on others." The group detests the word so much that they have reportedly threatened to de-tongue anyone caught saying it. Better, they say, to call them by their proper name, the one that suggests, somehow, a state that is Islamic.


"We could argue that people should have the right to call themselves whatever they want," Martin Smith, the correspondent of Frontline's new documentary "The Rise of ISIS," told me. But "it's so presumptuous — like calling yourself the Jewish state or the Christian state. If a group comes along and calls itself 'the Solar System' or 'The Universe' are we really going to call it that?"

A map of "Islamic State" territory. Image: Vice News


On 'Daesh'

Perhaps then, Daesh is the lesser of many evils. The word means nothing on its own, but its negative resonances and its awful sound have already made the moniker its own barb. Parodies and assaults across social media in the Arabic-speaking world have exploited its negative connotations ("one who crushes something underfoot" and "one who sows discord") in various anti-Daesh propaganda campaigns. In some places, daeshi has come to be used as a derogatory adjective referring to "a bigot who imposes their views." And the Free Syrian Army has exploited this homophone in some punning slogans, to convey something like "the Free Syrian Army is stepping on Daesh and on Assad."

But Daesh appears almost nowhere in the western media, presumably because it's a mouthful for non-Arabic speakers. It does pop up in English-language reports by Middle Eastern outlets like Gulf News, and on the tongues of officials: recently Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (himself not exactly a model of freedom) announced his intention to refer to the Sunni jihadists as Daesh, echoing the choice of the French President. France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, who has even gone a step farther: he's promised to refer to the group as "Daesh cutthroats."


What makes naming this group tricky is three-fold: there's the language barrier, the appropriation of Islam, and the group's bloody political and geographical ambitions, which have ballooned in the past year (official motto: "Remaining and Expanding") and which have been well documented in its own slick propaganda.

"This adversary is about as good as I've ever seen," CENTCOM Commander, Gen. Lloyd Austin, said recently. "A number of the folks that are in the ranks of this organization have been in this business before. So they've learned the lessons of Iraq and other places, and they really understand the value of trying to dominate the media space."

The media space is, of course, made up completely by language and imagery. In this context, what we call the militants is not insignificant. The group's assaults are not just kinetic but symbolic, with a fierce propaganda war waged on all fronts, including Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram and even SoundCloud, in both English and Arabic.

And the group's target audience isn't mainly Westerners; it's Sunni Muslims throughout the Middle East—people who speak Arabic—to whom the group is making most of its dubious claims to religious and historical legitimacy. No wonder Daesh is so mad about Daesh.

It helps that the word is as ugly in Arabic as it is in English. Or in French. After France's president Francois Hollande said he would also be using the Arabic, one blogger noted the word's "sonorité péjorative": dèche, douche, tache—to be broke, shower, spot.


An example of anti-ISIS social media propaganda, using the Arabic acronym Daesh. Image: via Pieter Van Ostaeyen.

"There is a long history of pinning unpleasant-sounding names on unpleasant people," someone at the Economist wrote. "Nazi," for instance, may have "caught on in English partly because of its resonance with words such as 'nasty.'"

More importantly, though, is the effect that using the Arabic could have on how English-language speakers think about the group, and in turn, how we talk to others who are also thinking seriously about it. As Zeba Khan pointed out in the Boston Globe recently,

A number of studies suggest that the language we use affects the way we think and behave. By using a term that references the Arabic name and not an English translation, American policy makers can potentially inoculate themselves from inherent biases that could affect their decision making. A University of Chicago study last year showed that thinking in a foreign language actually reduces deep-seated, misleading biases and prevents emotional, unconscious thinking from interfering with systematic, analytical thinking.

According to that study, led by Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago, a second language provides a helpful cognitive distance from more automatic thinking, promoting analytical thought and reducing emotional reactions. This could be helpful in financial decision making, but it might easily play a role in statecraft and media coverage too.

"It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using, or that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic," wrote Keysar's team. "We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases."


Using the native language of Daesh could help reduce emotional decision-making at a time when rationality and nuance are needed. And as the group focuses on recruiting young Muslims through aggressive campaigns on social media and the internet, using the Arabic acronym in denouncing it would sound more relevant to the audience the group is trying to reach.

That is to say, if you're trying to tell your readers about its latest horrors, "Daesh" may not be great for SEO. But it's the word that a chorus of people throughout the Muslim world are already using to implicitly reject the group's awful vision.

Wait—is it (not) a state?

Of course, not everyone agrees. The deliberate use of certain names may be interesting to editors and think tanks, but some say it's a distraction otherwise. As Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College London, told the Times, "Merely uttering the words Islamic State doesn't mean you recognize it as a state. People understand that they are impostors and that a name is just a name." Anthony Bubalo, a Middle East expert at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, wrote, "Frankly, if our strategy for defeating the group's ideas is based primarily on calling it names then we need to think of a new strategy."

Meanwhile, as some have argued against validating or dignifying the group by calling it a state, some observers point out that Daesh has started to carry out some of the functions of basic government, albeit under a bloody interpretation of sharia law.


"As an organization, ISIS has become the wealthiest militant group in the world, with assets in the low billions of dollars, and has developed an almost obsessive level of bureaucracy, account keeping and centrally controlled but locally implemented military-political coordination," said Charles Lister, who follows the group for the Brookings Institution center in Doha, Qatar.

"I think ISIS has a reasonable claim to statehood at this point—a worrying development," John Nagl, a Former Lt. Col. and author of the Army and Marine counterinsurgency manual, told Leonard Lopate recently. (The Pentagon thinks that the $30 million a month in oil and taxes that the group brings in isn't enough cash to govern all the space it controls.)

In any case, said Smith, "We're not gonna see them with a seat at the UN anytime soon."

As for calling it simply "Islamic State," he said: "I think it's a term that's offensive to every Muslim that I know."

The evolution of a name

To understand how we got here, look up the group on Wikipedia. The dozen name variants there amount to a kind of history of its rise as told in near synonyms.

Back in 2006, the entry for the group of Sunni extremists called them Al Qaeda in Iraq. It was under this banner that they began to organize under the banner of ISI—the Islamic State of Iraq—another Wikipedia name change. The group moved quickly, exacting bits of revenge from the predominantly Shia Iraqi government and racking up hundreds of fatalities. By the end of 2011, with US forces gone, and as the country's sectarian tensions grew under prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, ISI began to find a foothold in the war in neighboring Syria, where its militant message quickly gained traction among groups fighting Bashar al-Assad.


On April 9th, 2013, someone with an IP address originating in Turkey renamed the page "Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)" to "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Syria) (ISIL)." By then, the group was fighting hard across Syria, and had plumed its feathers by adding to its moniker the historic Arabic name of the place that encompassed modern-day Syria, Lebanon, and (according to some authorities) Jordan and Palestine, known in English as The Levant. (Therein lies another linguistic minefield.)

Two months later, following a discussion on Wikipedia talk pages, the name switched again to the simpler "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)." On August 20th, 2013, the entry became "Islamic State of Iraq and Levant," without an acronym. Then it was "Islamic State" for a while, with a qualifier at the top ("The self-designated Islamic State…"), and then back again.

There have also been fights over whether to call the group's leader al-Baghdadi a caliph or a "self designated" caliphate: "don't remove qualifier," wrote one Wikipedian, "please see definitions of [[caliph]] and since they are not a caliphate they can't have a caliph." Wikipedia administrators have limited changes to registered users.

If it doesn't confer legitimacy, "Islamic State" at least suggests the group's bloodthirsty political aims. "It demonstrates [the group's leader, Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi's ambition," Smith told me. Al-Baghdadi is "a guy that wanted to take this further than any al Qaeda franchise has taken it." (Indeed, while some al Qaeda groups have joined the Islamic State, or whatever they call it, others have disowned the group, calling its tactics as too extreme.)


Then again, even Islamic State could be considered a misnomer even by the Islamic State's own standards, because there simply are no states. "It believes that states don't exist, and there is really one Islamic entity," Graeme Wood, the author of a recent series on the group, told Vice News.

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said his group had settled on ISIS, even if he personally refers to the group as "Daesh"—"though sometimes I say 'the Evil State.'"

Tarek Masoud, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, told PRI that, considering the connotations of the Arabic and the opacity of acronyms, "ISIS or ISIL is okay."

Most ironically, there is the group, started in 2007, called ISIS: the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society

It's not okay for everyone. Some point out that while "ISIS" rolls off the tongue, it's simply too pretty a word for a bunch of murderous fanatics.

And then there is the collateral damage of this well-trodden name. There are , including, by the last census numbers, some 3,192 people in the U.S. In August, an American woman Isis Martinez launched a petition that asks the media to use the term ISIL instead; it has racked up over 37,000 signatures.

While some have notably abandoned the name (the Labrador on Downton Abbey will not appear on the Christmas special), ISIS remains the name of a group that supports communities in the developing world, and is still the name of a networking protocol used mainly by internet service providers. It is also still the name of a seminal post-metal band (best album: "Panopticon"), a private equity firm, a seven-seater from Toyota, and a US pharmaceutical company. The Isis is the part of the river Thames that passes through Oxford, England, and the title of Oxford University's century-old magazine of long-form journalism ("We have been banned in Germany, threatened by blackmail, and mocked by Punch Magazine").


There's also the Institute for the Scientific Investigation of Sexuality, and the Institute for Science and International Security—a "nonprofit, non-governmental institution to inform the public about science and policy issues affecting international security." Most ironically, there is the group, started in 2007 by the New York-based Center for Inquiry, called ISIS: the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society. (It is currently on hiatus, I'm told.)

Smith, of Frontline, isn't sure if the language we use in talking about ISIS is interesting or distracting, but the partisan politics we apply to the problem certainly can be.

"So many people in Washington want to make this a blame game and point fingers at Obama, rather than look at the root causes of all this."

Put aside the group's tangled, nebulous names, he said, and consider the small dictionary of tribes and people who are caught in the middle of—or are helping to helping foment— the group's violence. "The big wildcard in all of this are the tribes," he said. "Some of them have been sitting on the fence."

What's significant about ISIS—and something that would seem to negate its claims to statehood—isn't what it has made but what it has destroyed.

"I do think that Iraq as a unified state with a restored border with Syria, encompassing Sunni, Shia, and Kurd, is a fiction at this point." It is worth noting, Smith said, "that there's an entity that straddles the two countries. They've redrawn borders."

As with land so with words. "This is not a state; this is a terrorist organization," Ahmet Ogras, vice president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, told the Times during a protest of Muslims in France in October, where some people carried placards with the hashtag #NotInMyName. "I call them terrorists because that's what they are. One has to call a dog a dog. One can't play with words."

For now, then, the safest approach to naming the group that has named itself Islamic State may be the one that's both more native and more offensive to the group itself, the one that pushes our brains to think a little bit harder about the context, that manages to acknowledge the group's ambitions, and that marks it as a complicated and unsavory new player: Daesh. It's a word that indicates the group's foreignness to so many people, whether they're American or Muslim, a word just ugly enough that uttering it also contains a hope: that it won't have to be said very much longer.


Watch Vice News's "The Islamic State":