What’s in a name? The media headache over ISIS, Islamic State, ISIL and Daesh

Published February 16th, 2015 - 02:07 GMT
Al Bawaba
Al Bawaba

There’s a terrifying group claiming masses of land in Iraq and Syria, punishing those that refuse to adhere to its brutal policies. The media labels it a terrorist group. We all know who they are and the atrocities they’ve committed.

But one matter has given the media world a continued headache and has been the cause for many debates: what to call the group.

When Daesh (ISIL, Islamic State or ISIS, if you prefer) started to gain ground and notoriety, ISIS was the acronym most commonly adopted. While some organizations have stuck to using this term, many have changed their naming policy and a handful of acronyms have emerged. There’s no consistency, and plenty of uncertainty.

The situation now is that there are several different names to describe the same violent group. The BBC uses "Islamic State," the UAE’s The National prefers "ISIL," al-Arabiya uses "ISIS" and Gulf News sticks to "Daesh." But why the differences and does it really matter who uses what?

Beginnings and rebrandings

As the group itself has changed and evolved throughout the years, so too has its name.

In 1999 a group emerged led by Jordanian national Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which eventually went under the name of Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, The group changed this to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s network in October 2004. It went through a rebranding in 2006 after al-Zarqawi was killed and new leader al-Baghdadi declared its name as the "Islamic State in Iraq." 

The group reflected achievement in its name by adding "al-Sham" or "Syria" in 2013.The most recent PR manoeuvre it undertook was in June. Declaring the swathes of land they had seized as an Islamic caliphate, the militants named their group Islamic State.

The media mirrors

To a large extent, the media too has mirrored these changing names, using them in its reports. Until recently ISIS was pretty standard across different establishments. The decision by some media outlets to switch to the term Islamic State was simply because the group itself began to define itself as such since June.

The BBC had its own internal debate about how to refer to the group but settled on “Islamic State.” A BBC spokesperson told Al Bawaba that it uses the name the group itself uses, and because that has changed from “ISIS” to “Islamic State,” the language used by the BBC changed too.

But the organization said that it also uses additional descriptions to help make it clear that it is referring to the group as they refer to themselves, such as “so-called Islamic State” or “Islamic State group.”

“We continue to take guidance from our specialist teams in the region to ensure we are using the most appropriate and accurate descriptions,” the spokesperson said.

The Saudi Gazette follows the same logic. The newspaper’s editor, Somayya Jabart,  told us that its policy is “to precede every mention of ‘IS’ with 'the self-proclaimed' so it always reads ‘the self-proclaimed IS.’” She continued: “This policy reflects and reinforces the fact that this alleged 'state' calling itself 'Islamic' is merely a claim and not an actuality.”

But not everyone is happy about this.

In a letter to David Cameron, signed by the Islamic Society of Britain and the Association of Muslim Lawyers, the signatories wrote: “We do not believe the terror group responsible should be given the credence and standing they seek by styling themselves Islamic State.

It is neither Islamic, nor is it a state. The group has no standing with faithful Muslims, nor among the international community of nations. Many organizations for this very reason have refused to use the term ‘Islamic State.’"

It isn’t always an easy choice. The New York Times was cautious in changing the name it used, wary of confusing readers and not wanting to give any ounce of legitimacy to the terrorist organization. The newspaper decided to wait and see what happened, not wanting to be too rash in its decision.

But three months after the group had claimed the name “Islamic State” for itself — when the group was dominating headlines — The New York Times joined other prominent media outlets and switched to the term “Islamic State.”

What’s in a letter: ISIS or ISIL?

Despite many switching to the term IS, use of the word ISIS has remained pretty resolute. Apart from being the name of an ancient Egyptian goddess, ISIS is an acronym for the literal translation al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham or “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.” The use of “al-Sham” refers to Syria’s capital Damascus, but is also often used to refer to the wider region of the Levant.

This is where the discrepancy between ISIL and ISIS lies, with the “L” being used for Levant, referring to Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and some say even a part of southeastern Turkey. ISIL, arguably could be more accurate, given the group’s aim to establish a caliphate in the region, even though the exact territory that al-Sham refers to is open to debate itself.

The news agency AP has followed “the accuracy” justification for using the term ISIL. “We believe this is the most accurate translation of the group’s name and reflects its aspirations to rule over a broad swath of the Middle East,” John Daniszewski, AP’s vice president and senior managing editor for international news, said in a statement last year.

Insults: The name ‘Daesh’ as a linguistic weapon

The French then went and complicated the matter further, introducing the unknown term “Daesh” into the mix. In Arabic the acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham is DAIISH, often spelled “Da’esh” or “Daesh.” So literally it seems to equal ISIS or ISIL. And so Francois Hollande and his government changed their usage, from EIIL (L'Etat islamique en Irak et en Syrie), which was a bit of a mouthful anyway.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urged journalists and media organizations to do the same: “This is a terrorist group and not a state. I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats.’”

Just last month Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott followed suit. In December two people died after a Daesh sympathizer took a number of people hostage in a central Sydney cafe.  Mr. Abbott told the Herald Sun newspaper that Daesh does not like the term and so encouraged Western leaders and reporters to use it.

In media circles the term hasn’t caught on. In fact in the West, many people haven’t even heard of the word. But Daesh despises this name. Why, if it’s just an acronym for ISIS?

Daesh thinks the name is offensive because it sounds like the Arabic word “daes,” loosely translated to mean “to step on, trample on or crush something underfoot.” The militants consider the term so degrading and insulting that there have been reports of people being punished by the group for using it. According the media reports, militant leaders have even threatened to "cut out the tongues" of those who refer to them as “Daesh.” A young boy in Syria may have kept his tongue, but he didn’t escape being flogged after calling the group by this name.

So deciding what to call Daesh — or ISIS, ISIL and IS — is no easy feat. There’s still no standardized term and there probably won’t be as long as the lexical debate wages on as to whether accuracy, legitimacy or simplicity should prevail.

By Catherine Ellis


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