WE have become familiar with the names ISIS – an abbreviation for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” the shorter IS, or Islamic State, and occasionally ISIL, which stands for “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” to describe the murderous terrorist organization that has seized territory in Iraq and war-torn Syria, and spread its hateful tentacles to distant places like Yemen, Afghanistan, North and Central Africa, and possibly even here in Southeast Asia.
Ever since the shocking attacks in Paris on October 13, however, another name for the group has been heard more often – “Daesh.” French President Francois Hollande referred to Daesh in his statements swearing vengeance for the appalling carnage the ISIS “death cult” inflicted in the City of Lights, and US Secretary of State John Kerry has also used the name in his public statements. Politicians and news media from the Arab world have been using the term since the very first appearance of IS in late 2013.
The term “Daesh” comes from the transliteration of the Arabic name by which the group refers to itself: al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham. Al-Sham is an Arabic term that describes a geographic region in the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Mesopotamia that encompasses Syria; the term doesn’t translate well to English, so most substitute the Levant (which is a somewhat larger region, but includes al-Sham) or simply Syria; hence, the acronyms ISIL or ISIS. The acronym of the group’s name in transliterated form is DAIISH, which is shortened in English to “Daesh.” The word happens to sound very similar to another Arabic word, dahes, which means “to trample, or “run over,” or in some translations, “one who sows discord.”
ISIS, of course, does not like being referred to in this darkly tongue-in-cheek way, and so has banned the name “Daesh” in territories under its control, threatening gruesome punishment for anyone caught using it.
What’s in a name?
Daesh is actually a preferable name for a number of reasons. As French President Hollande noted, using “ISIS” or any other variant combining the terms “Islamic” and “State” accords the murderous gang an imprimatur of political legitimacy that is neither realistic nor deserved, particularly in light of the brutality with which they interact with anyone who does not share their insanely narrow, extremist views. The aspiration of the group is to convince the Muslim world that they are the Caliphate – the one true authority binding together all Muslims – which is something that all Muslims save for a very narrow lunatic fringe that no one considers representative of the faith as a whole reject.
In a very real sense, then, using terms like “Islamic State” or the acronyms ISIS or IS unwittingly helps the group to sell its message; it is not a state in any rational sense of the term, but by relying on the familiar terms to describe the group, we are helping to turn it into one. And not insignificantly, referring to Daesh as ISIS or the Islamic State or the Caliphate is a grave insult to the hundreds of millions of Muslims who do not subscribe to their brutally extremist views.