linguistic weapons: ISIS, ISIL, IS or Daesh?

France, always the blazing non-conformist, has recently decided to stop calling ISIS by the name ISIS… or ISIL, or the Islamic State. Instead, its foreign minister recently announced that the French government would begin calling the group “Daesh.”

Why am I writing about this? A great question, my Discerning Reader. Here’s the reason: words matter, and names mean a great deal.

Let’s break it down.

  1. ISIS stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. Al-Sham is an Arab word referring to a giant piece of land in the Middle East near the Mediterranean.
  2. ISIL stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The Europeans came up with the word “Levant,” which an area in the Middle East that roughly overlaps with the territory considered Al-Sham.
  3. In June, the group dropped the last two initials from its acronym and began calling itself the Islamic State, or IS.
  4. Daesh actually comes from an acronym too, al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham. But even before France decided that it would use Daesh, the group’s enemies in the Middle East have been using the word since April. It’s meant to be derogatory because it sounds a whole lot like the Arab words “Daes” (“one who crushes something underfoot”) and “Dahes” (“one who sows discord”).

I’ll continue to call the group ISIS for continuity’s sake, but here’s the bottom line: By calling themselves the Islamic State, ISIS is trying to legitimize themselves as their own nation, literally taking down borders between Iraq and Syria and putting up their own.

Here’s the bit on the Vice documentary on ISIS which shows militants taking down the barbed wire that divided Syria and Iraq by way of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

(Side note: If somebody knows how in the world Vice got such unprecedented access to ISIS for this documentary let me know. Did they know people? Did they pay ISIS? I mean this is the organization that has been beheading journalists… how Vice managed to get this footage just floors me.)

Most nations and news organizations refuse to call ISIS the Islamic State, thereby refusing to recognize the group as a legitimate state. But when France, Iran and Syria call ISIS Daesh, they’re taking it one step further. It’s as if they’re mocking ISIS, spitting in its face. 

Semantics, everyone. Words working as weapons.


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