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ISIS, ISIL or Daesh? What’s in a name?


25 September 2015 Updated 2 December 2015

A colleague recently suggested that I write a piece explaining why we should call the terrorist group which presently controls about half of Syria and half of Iraq "Daesh."

I agreed to do so. However once I started writing, I concluded that ISIL, the name currently used by the US and UK Governments, is more appropriate.

I wrote a piece for the Conservative Home website explaining the issues and my thought process. While writing it, I also concluded that we should refuse to use the name which ISIL's leader has chosen to adopt for himself.

Mohammed Amin: ISIS, ISIL or Daesh? What’s in a name?

Mohammed Amin is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Over the last fifteen months, like hundreds of millions around the world, Muslims and non-Muslims, I have been shocked by the disgusting barbarity of the outfit in Iraq and Syria led by the individual who was called Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri by his parents, and who now calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Particularly distressing to me is that they wrap themselves in the garb of Islam, and cite the Quran to justify the most heinous crimes. They call themselves Muslims but in my view they are the worst Muslims the world has seen since the Kharijite rebels who decided that other Muslims, including the fourth caliph Ali, were not good enough Muslims and therefore killed them with the same bloodthirsty abandon we see today, until the Kharijites themselves were suppressed by force.

While I have no doubt that God will punish these murderers in the afterlife, we and other countries need to stop our citizens being deluded into supporting them, and need to support those Muslims such as the government of Iraq who are their most immediate victims. Accordingly, I support the military actions our government has taken to support the Iraqi government and would support military action in Syria against these bloodthirsty barbarians.

As mentioned above, as well as military action we need to stop Muslims in Britain or elsewhere being deluded into supporting these butchers. One important aspect of that is how we refer to them.

What do they call themselves?

There is a detailed history of the group on Wikipedia which is consistent with my reading of news sources. The group grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, once led by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Its name has always been in Arabic, but the English translations of its name have successively been as follows:

Its leader calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and on 29 June 2014 proclaimed himself as Amir al-Mu’minin (Arabic for Commander / Leader of the Faithful, usually referred to as the Caliph.)

Argument against using the name they call themselves

When dealing with either states or non-state actors, normal practice is to refer to them by the name they call themselves.

Hence we informally refer to South Korea and North Korea, but when we want to be formal we use the names they give themselves, namely the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea even though North Korea is not democratic while South Korea is.

Similarly non-state organisations are normally referred to by the names they give themselves, even if abbreviated for convenience. For example:

As evident from the above examples of two terrorist organisations, that applies even when we strongly disapprove of the organisation and everything it stands for. For my views on Hamas see this article.

However, in certain cases using the name that an organisation has given itself risks making it seem more legitimate or credible than it actually is, and can inadvertently mislead others into supporting that organisation.

The man who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is clearly not “the Commander of the Faithful”. If we refer to him as such (because that is the title he gives himself) we risk leading others to think that he really is the Commander of the Faithful. Any Muslim who thinks that the title is accurately claimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will almost certainly want to follow and support him.

Highly educated journalists and politicians forget the lamentable educational and critical thinking skills of large parts of our own population, let alone uneducated people overseas. Just think of the number of British Muslims who have been persuaded that ISIL controlled territory is a desirable place for them to live.

“UK Government policy is to destroy the Islamic State and to kill the Commander of the Faithful if we cannot capture him alive.” Such language is not going to endear the UK to any Muslim who is uneducated enough to take the words at face value. It requires us to be very careful with our choice of words.

My recommendations

I often find myself having to refer to the organisation in question on social media and in articles I write. My preferred usage is “ISIS” or “ISIL” but I am inconsistent. ISIS is an acronym for “Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham” while ISIL is an acronym for “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” The US and UK governments appear to have standardised on ISIL and I will force myself to do the same.

Strictly speaking, both adjectives risk legitimising the organisation, but I think there is a sufficient disconnect between the acronym and the expanded name that the risk is minimal. For example we have never had such a concern when using the acronym Hamas.

I avoid using “Islamic State” for the reasons set out above. When responding to the name being used by someone else, I always say something like “so-called Islamic State” to make it clear that I reject its assertions to be either “Islamic” or a “state.”

A group of MPs recently sought to have the BBC adopt the name “Daesh” to refer to the group. Daesh is an Arabic acronym from “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa’al Sham” which is Arabic for “Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham.” Accordingly “Daesh” is the exact Arabic equivalent of “ISIS.”

Daesh is the usage adopted by Middle Eastern governments, and also by France and Turkey according to the article linked above. As an Arabic word it is similar to another Arabic word “Dahes” or “one who sows discord”. Perhaps for this reason the organisation is known to strongly dislike the use of the name Daesh to refer to it.

It is of course natural for Arabic speaking governments to use the Arabic acronym to refer to the organisation. However I do not regard it as natural for English speakers to do so. The strict English equivalent, which is ISIS, or more precisely ISIL, (since “the Levant” is English while “Al Shams” is Arabic) is more appropriate.

I recognise that these are not easy choices for governments to make. One needs to avoid legitimising the enemy, but at the same time to retain one’s own dignity and not weaken one’s power to persuade those whom one wants to influence.

I also believe that we should not refer to the organisation’s leader as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “Abu Bakr” was a person who is held in immensely high regard by the 90 per cent of the world’s Muslims who are Sunnis because he was the closest friend of the Prophet Muhammad and became the first caliph after Muhammad’s death. We would not play along with a Roman Catholic terrorist who chose to call himself St Peter; that is the equivalent of accepting the self-designation of a Muslim who chooses to call himself Abu Bakr.

Instead, we should either call him by his given name, Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri or if that is too hard we should refer to him as “the man who has adopted the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” or some equivalent formulation.

Addendum 2 December 2015

An article on the Huffington Post "David Cameron Will Only Use 'Da'esh' To Refer To Terrorist Group During Syria Bombing Debate" about the Parliamentary debate about whether the UK Government should bomb ISIL in Syria gave me some extra information about the above issue.

In particular, as explained by freelance translator Alice Guthrie in her piece from February 2015 "Decoding Daesh: Why is the new name for ISIS so hard to understand?" Arabic uses acronyms far less often than English. Accordingly, even though Daesh as explained above is simply an Arabic acronym exactly equivalent to ISIL or ISIS, its use is strongly resented by the organisation in the way that the acronyms ISIL or ISIS would not be resented.

Now that I have this additional information about the rarity of acronyms in Arabic, I will change my own usage to Daesh instead of ISIL.


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