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A Capliphate by Any Other Name

Omar Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the militant Islamist group that has captured cities and towns in Syria and Iraq, announced a restored “Islamic State.” But debate continues over how to refer to the jihadist movement. The US officially calls it ISIL — the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, as does Britain. The UN has decided on “ISIS”, while France has settled on “Daesh,” a common Arabic name for the group. News organizations struggle with wordy phrases such as "the self-styled Islamic State group.”

The group was first formed as "JTJ (Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, "The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad"), then in October 2004 became TQJBR (Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (The Organization of Jihad's Base in the Country of the Two Rivers), and upon joining al-Qaeda it became known as AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq). The establishment of the Dawlat al-'Iraq al-Islamiyya, Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was announced on 13 October 2006. On 09 April 2013 the group adopted the name "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant" [ISIL] or “Greater Syria”, which translates to “al-Sham” (ISIS). Da'esh or Daash is the Arabic equivalent of the acronym ISIS.

Sham does not refer just to Syria, but the eastern crescent of the Mediterranean, from Istanbul west to Egypt, including Cyprus and Israel. Sham is derived from an Arabic root word meaning "left" or "north,” but to Muslims it’s more than a geographic designation: It is the historic caliphate whose capital was Damascus.

In his 29 June 2014 announcement of a restored “caliphate”, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani changed the group’s name. “Accordingly,” he said, “'the Iraq and Sham' in the name of the Islamic State is henceforth removed from all official deliberations and communications, and the official name is the Islamic State from the date of this declaration.” This lifted colonial borders and declared a universal state for all devout Sunni Muslims, and this in turn implied expansionist ambitions.

The French dubbed the region Levant, that is, “where the sun rises,” a purely geographic term that denotes the areas it colonized. For many, “Levant” is an easier concept to grasp than “Sham” — hence, ISIL. That’s the name the Obama Administration uses.

Using the term “Islamic State” only validates the group’s claims to political and religious legitimacy. Referring to the group as ISIL rather than the "Islamic State" reflects the White House's desire to separate the extremist movement from the religion, Islam.

One problem is that the name implies membership of all Muslims and nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the Islamic State is selective, rejecting all who do not adhere to a strict, literal interpretation of the Koran. That would include Shiite, apostates, heretics and Muslims who have adapted modern ways, who the IS collectively dismisses as kuffar, “disbelievers.”

Even so, many media outlets have opted to use the phrase, including the Associated Press (AP), Reuters, major newspapers like The New York Times, as well as the VOA, which most often refers to the group as Islamic State militants. VOA as a rule tries to conform to the style policies of the Associated Press unless there is a good reason to do otherwise because that is the standard for American media and because it makes it easier to be consistent.

It is the name chosen by the group itself, and it reflects the global ambitions of the group better than the alternatives — Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Other editors make the case that avoiding the term “Islamic State” reflects political bias. “The rationale is that this is the group’s self-designated name, even if we think the group is despicable,” said Foreign Policy (FP) copy chief Preeti Aroon. “Also, we don’t want readers to think Foreign Policy is oblivious to the name change.”

“Sometimes FP does use ISIS in headlines and tweets because it’s concise and catchier,” Aroon said. “Style rules shouldn’t be rigid; there needs to be some allowance for poetic license. Also, due to the volume of articles FP publishes, I can’t personally copy-edit each one, so ‘style violations’ such as ISIS will sometimes appear in FP articles."

France decided that it would use the term “Daesh,” as the alternatives “blur the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. DAESH is an approximate acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham. In Arabic, when you put those letters together and pronounce them as one syllable, it sounds like the Arabic verb which means to crush or to tread on, and that’s why al-Daesh is used in a lot of Middle Eastern countries as a perjorative for the group. It’s a name the IS group hates. They’ve vowed to cut out the tongues from anyone who calls them that.

Zeba Khan wrote October 09, 2014 that "The term “Daesh” is strategically a better choice because it is still accurate in that it spells out the acronym of the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. Yet, at the same time, “Daesh” can also be understood as a play on words — and an insult. Depending on how it is conjugated in Arabic, it can mean anything from “to trample down and crush” to “a bigot who imposes his view on others.”"

Western media and the general public should stop calling Islamist terrorists in Syria and Iraq 'Islamic State' and instead refer to them as 'Daesh', experts at NATO's dedicated Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (STRATCOMCOE) in Riga, said on 04 December 2015.

Speaking at a presentation of the center's research on Daesh's use of social media to spread its message of global jihad Polish army officer Major Rafal Zgryziewicz, who has researched Daesh's information strategy for STRATCOMCOE said it was important for Western sources to be consistent in their usage.

“The name is the thing they really want to implement in our media. They want to be named as the 'Islamic State'. We did experimentation and we downloaded over 350,000 different accounts and tried to understand who is using 'the State of the Caliphate', who is using 'Daesh' and guess what – all the people speaking about them as a threat and a terrorist organization were using 'Daesh',"Zgryziewicz said.

“I don't want to call it 'Islamic State' because that's how they want to be perceived. It's important we all use the same name. We need to avoid playing their game,” he added. “They want to be perceived as a real state, as a real country with leaders...but they are not.”

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Page last modified: 07-12-2015 10:56:35 ZULU