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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 07:33 | SYDNEY
Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 07:33 | SYDNEY

ISIS, ISIL, IS and Da'esh: Sticks and stones



15 October 2014 14:01

With the air campaign appearing to have little effect on Islamic State (IS) so far, it seems the US-led coalition is switching to a new strategy: name-calling.

This week John Kerry referred to IS by its Arabic acronym Da'esh, although in the same remarks he also referred to it as ISIL. This follows the French decision to use Da'esh in preference to IS, which is the name the group has given itself. IS has gone through several name changes since the group first emerged in the mid-2000s in Iraq. The Economist and Ian Black in the Guardian provide good explanations.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius argues that the term Islamic State 'blurs the lines between Islam, Muslim and Islamists.' His personal preference is to use the term 'Da'esh cut-throats'. 

Kerry is yet to explain why he is using Da'esh, although he has talked about the importance of delegitimising the group's claim to represent Islam. Previously, President Obama has said that the group is neither Islamic nor a state, hence the decision to stick to the group's next-to-last name, ISIL.

IS, we are told, does not like the term Da'esh – so that's one good reason to use it. Apparently it has threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone heard using it, which, lets face it, is a pretty mild punishment by its gruesome standards.

Using 'Da'esh' also avoids the argument over whether to use ISIS or ISIL. Both are the acronyms of the English translation of the group's next-to-last name, before it changed to Islamic State. So it is either 'Islamic State in Iraq and Syria' if you prefer ISIS or 'Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant' if you prefer ISIL. The difference turns on the last word in the name – in Arabic, 'al-Sham'. It can be translated as either 'Syria' or 'the Levant' (roughly, the eastern shores of the Mediterranean between Egypt and Turkey). Like any good orientalist I have consulted my trusty old Hans Wehr dictionary and it says Syria (but also Damascus).

None of this helps to answers the question of whether to use IS or ISIS/ISIL/Da'esh, underlining the success of IS's campaign to sow fear and linguistic confusion throughout the world.

I have to admit I have used all four without a lot of thought. I totally agree that the group does not represent Islam, but I am also sympathetic to the idea that you should call a group by whatever name it chooses for itself. A concession to both camps is to use 'Islamic State' without the definite article (ie. 'Islamic State' rather than 'the Islamic State').

But frankly if our strategy for defeating the group's ideas is based primarily on calling it names then we need to think of a new strategy.

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