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Call It ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh — the Islamic State Still Wants to Kill You

The recent use by US officials of the Arabic acronym "Daesh" to refer to the Islamic State terror group prompted speculation that the word was being deployed as a kind of linguistic diss.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Nov 17 2015, 9:50pm

Imagen por VICE News

After the Paris attacks last week, US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the self-declared Islamic State (IS) by its Arabic acronym Daesh, which stands for al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, meaning "the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant" — the latter word a term that refers to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

Daesh is the term Arabic speakers who are not members of the terror insurgency use to refer to the group, which rebranded itself the Islamic State after it seized a large chunk of land in Syria and Iraq last year and called it a caliphate. Some on the internet were confused and alarmed. After over a year of mostly calling the group ISIL rather than ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), why were the American leaders suddenly switching it up?

Some speculated that the word was being deployed as a kind of linguistic diss. IS calls itself al-Khilafa (The Caliphate) or al-Dawla al-Islamiya (The Islamic State) in its own media. Perhaps using the Daesh acronym was a way of sticking it to the group? 

Before long, an article published by the Boston Globe last year began to recirculate. In it, the writer Zeba Khan notes that Daesh, a nonsense word in Arabic, shares the same root as some actual words that mean "to trample" — the implication being that calling the group Daesh emphasizes its oppressive character. The resurfacing of another year-old article from the Associated Press, in which a few residents of the Iraqi city of Mosul said that some IS militants had threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone who called the group Daesh, seemed to lend this idea support.

Related: What's in a Name? Scholars Disagree on How We Should Talk About the Islamic State

So is calling the group Daesh a wicked burn? And has the US government resorted to puns as a form of symbolic retribution following the Paris attacks?

Not really, and probably not. 

John Kerry has actually used Daesh off and on for over a year. When he said it in Brussels in December 2014, the media also made a big stink, speculating that it potentially signaled a major policy change of some sort. 

The truth of the matter is much more boring. As you might already have gathered, the word Daesh is simply a direct translation of what US officials typically says in English: ISIL. Daesh is also what the French have long used to refer to IS, and it is possible that Kerry and Obama are saying it more frequently in the past few days as a reflection of solidarity following the horrific events in Paris.

When VICE News asked the State Department about the use of different nomenclature, a spokesperson simply responded: "The State Department uses both Daesh (as it is known in the region and in some other countries) and ISIL to refer to the terrorist organization."

With the various terms and acronyms, confusion about what to call the group is understandable. As it rapidly evolved from an al Qaeda offshoot into a notorious global menace, it wasn't always clear what to call the insurgency. Western governments generally avoid using the word "state" because they fret that the word suggests legitimacy. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, various Muslims have expressed offense that the word "Islamic" has grown so closely tied to the radical group, whose ideology and acts of violence they regard as incompatible with the true faith. Last year, Egypt's religious body Dar al-Ifta (Arabic for "House of Rulings") launched an online campaign to weaken the group's association with Islam and discourage media outlets from calling it IS, ISIL, or ISIS. It instead preferred QSIS, which is short for al Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria.

"We felt that it would not be fair for the religion of Islam to be described through this inhumane type of violence," Dr. Ibrahim Negm, senior adviser to Egypt's Grand Mufti Shawki Allam, said at the time. "And it would further deepen the stereotypes that are already on the rise recently."

But the intrigue pretty much ends there.

"I don't think it matters," said Rachel Bryson, an Islamic State researcher at the Quilliam Foundation in the UK. "It's not that important if you use ISIL or Daesh or ISIS. It kind of is what it is.... You can just add 'so-called' if that makes you feel more comfortable."

Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro