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Analysis: The etymological evolution of 'IS'

Analysis: The etymological evolution of 'IS'

FOR governments, media outlets and academics the world over, a question continues to confound: what exactly do you call the militant outfit that currently controls considerable chunks of Iraq and Syria? What should it be out of IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh?

We may ask what’s in a name? But there are issues of political correctness, legitimacy and accuracy at stake: many in the international community — especially in the Muslim world — do not want to grant what is clearly a lethal terrorist outfit legitimacy by referring to what it calls itself in Arabic: ad-Dawlat al-Islamia, literally translated as ‘the Islamic state’.

It may be helpful to recall what these multiple acronyms actually stand for. While the meaning of IS has been explained above, ISIS is the English translation of what the outfit called itself in Arabic before it transformed into a self-declared ‘caliphate’ in June of last year: ad-Dawlat al-Islamia fil Iraq was Shaam, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIL has the same meaning, though Shaam has been translated as Levant instead of Syria.




Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ad-Dawlat al-Islamia fil Iraq was Shaam, though apparently the group is not too fond of this abbreviation as it has unpleasant meanings in Arabic.

It may also be of use to see how world media refer to the organisation. This newspaper has referred to it as both the self-styled Islamic State and more currently, the militant Islamic State group. Major local Urdu papers refer to it as Daesh.

In Arabic-language media, for example, Saudi-owned pan-Arab paper Asharq al-Awsat calls it Daesh, as does As-Safir of Lebanon. Interestingly, Qatar-based Al Jazeera’s English website uses ISIL, while the media outlet’s Arabic site refers to it as Tanzeem ad-Dawlatal Islamia, or the Islamic State organisation. Iranian Press TV’s website calls it Daesh in both the English and Farsi versions.

As for Western sources, the BBC uses Islamic State, while the UK’s Guardian refers to the militant group as both ISIS and Islamic State. The International New York Times also mostly uses Islamic State in its copy.

Of course the names the group uses have been changing as its fortunes have (mostly) risen. For example, around 2006 it was known as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). However, in 2013, when it entered the Syrian theatre, it rebranded itself as ISIS, adding the ‘S’ for Shaam, the classical Arabic name for the region comprising modern Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon. Shaam is more of a historical entity; the modern nation-state is Syria/Suriya, though in South Asia most refer to what is Suriya as Shaam.

But in June 2014, the outfit decided to shed this moniker in favour of ‘Islamic State’, as it sought to brand itself a caliphate. This, it is assumed, would help it expand its geographic and ideological scope.

Now let us discuss the rationale behind the use of different titles of the entity. ISIS should not be used as it is factually incorrect: as noted above the outfit shed this skin last year and no longer confines itself to Iraq and Syria. ISIL should similarly be dropped, though ‘Levant’ is a more faithful translation of Shaam than Syria. Also, Levant has a distinctly orientalist whiff to it. Daesh is also outdated.

Moreover, when referring to IS in, for example, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Daesh is factually incorrect as that name limited the organisation to Iraq and Syria; the outfit refers to the ‘wilaya’ of Khorasan, of which Afghanistan and Pakistan are very much a part.

The use of just ‘Islamic State’ without any qualifiers is highly problematic for two main reasons. Firstly, it is not a state in the technical sense as currently, not one country out of the entire comity of nations recognises IS as a legitimate state.

Secondly, despite the proclamation of the so-called caliphate by IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, arguably only a miniscule minority of the world’s billion-plus Muslims would actually consider the entity ‘Islamic’. The consensus amongst the world’s Muslims seems to be: ‘not in our name’, thanks largely to the outfit’s blood-drenched exploits.

Indeed some names have stuck regardless of the fact whether we agree with them or not. For example, the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance fighters of the 1980s are almost universally remembered by history as Mujahideen, even though we may or may not agree with the fact that these were ‘warriors of the faith’. Even former US president Ronald Reagan proudly lauded the Mujahideen on the floor of Congress. Can the current incumbent of the White House even think of praising the ‘mujahideen’ of today?

Closer to home, many violent militant and sectarian groups in Pakistan use Islamic terminology to define themselves, even though most amongst the silent majority may resent their hijacking of such terms.

In conclusion, when referring to IS, it may be best to simply term the outfit the militant Islamic State group in the first instance, and IS thereafter. This – though it may be clunky and verbose – seems to get the job done of describing the extremist outfit, yet at the same time denying it the legitimacy it craves.

Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2015

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