Islamic State, Daesh or Isis: the dilemma of naming the extremists

Dec 2, 2015

What's in a name? Media and politicians struggle to agree on what to call militants amid propaganda war

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty

The dilemma of what to call Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's terrorist group has been troubling politicians and the media since the militants began their advance across Iraq and Syria.

David Cameron today announced that the government would be using the term Daesh to refer to the extremist group and urged others not to use the name Islamic State.

"This evil death cult is frankly not a true representation of the religion of Islam," the prime minister said during a debate on whether to extend air strikes into Syria. 

It follows a campaign led by backbench Tory MP Rehman Chishti and shadow defence minister Hilary Benn to use the acronym of the group's Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa'al Sham.

The term is favoured by many Muslims who argue that it better separates the terrorists from their religion and is already used by several world leaders, including French President Francois Hollande.

"Mr Cameron is thought to have resisted in case the public did not understand the change in phrasing," reports ITV News.

Experts say the terrorist group's name plays a crucial part in their propaganda war – so what should we be calling them?

From Isil and Isis to Islamic State

First it was Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), with the Levant and Syria referring to a region stretching from southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt.

Then in June last year, the group renamed itself Islamic State (IS), suggesting its ambitions to be a worldwide caliphate rather than just in the Middle East. "They're claiming to represent all Muslims everywhere – they have declared the establishment of a new caliphate," says Blank. "So if they are to actually own this term, that'll be a huge propaganda victory for them."

The rise of Daesh

A fourth name, Daesh, is now gaining favour. It is a loose acronym of al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham (Arabic for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) but sounds like the Arabic words Daes ("one who crushes something underfoot") and Dahes ("one who sows discord").

According to The Guardian, the acronym has even become an Arabic word in its own right, with its plural "daw'aish" meaning "bigots who impose their views on others".

Lt Gen James Terry, commander of the US mission in Iraq and Syria, said his Arab allies have requested that Daesh is used to describe the enemy, reports the Wall Street Journal. "Our partners, at least the ones that I work with, ask us to use that, because they feel that if you use Isil, that you legitimise a self-declared caliphate," he said. "They feel pretty strongly that we should not be doing that."

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has settled on Daesh too, telling the Herald Sun: "Daesh hates being referred to by this term, and what they don't like has an instinctive appeal to me."

BBC concerns on impartiality

Earlier this year, a group of 120 MPs called on the BBC to stop referring to the militants as "Islamic State", arguing that they are neither Islamic nor a state.

Tory MP Rehman Chishti said the BBC's use of the word Islamic to describe a group that has murdered thousands of innocent people would offend Muslims. London Mayor Boris Johnson and the former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond were also among the MPs to sign an open letter to the BBC in protest at the terminology, while David Cameron has said he is "happy for people to use Daesh".

In a response described as "surprising" by MPs, the BBC rejected the request on the grounds that the suggested alternative was "pejorative". It said it needed to preserve its "impartiality", although cabinet minister Chris Grayling later suggested the need for being impartial towards the extremists was akin to being impartial towards the Nazis.

Instead, the BBC said it would "redouble" its efforts to use caveats such as the "Islamic State group" to "distinguish it from an actual, recognised state".

Taking the Islam out of Islamic State

Writing in the Islamic Monthly, Arsalan Iftikhar has previously suggested that we call the militants the "Un-Islamic State" as the "so-called Muslims" claiming to kill in the name of Islam are "in fact, completely defiling its essence". Iftikhar says there is "nothing Islamic about beheading foreign journalists, indiscriminately targeting religious minorities and instilling wanton terror within the general civilian population". US President Barack Obama has also been reticent to call the extremists "Islamic", insisting that "we are not at war with Islam – we are at war with people who have perverted Islam".

But writing in The Spectator, Rod Liddle insists you cannot take the Islam out of Islamic State. "The point is that they call themselves Islamic State: that is their name," says Liddle. "You can cavil all you like, but that is generally the approach we have taken over the years in journalism: give something its proper name, not something we would prefer it to be called because the proper name offends our sensibilities."

Pretending that Isis is not Muslim at all will be "counterproductive", adds Liddle, pointing out that it makes "no sense" for Cameron to simultaneously implore Muslim communities to root out the extremists, while also insisting that the extremists have nothing to do with Islam.

Others suggest the matter of semantics is not the top priority when a group of murderous militants are taking lives across the world. As John Crace at The Guardian points out, "the least of the problems in dealing with Isis is deciding on what to call it".

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