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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What is in a Name? IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh

By Jennifer Jennings, Guest Blogger    Twitter @Sistereight 

Links: A. “There is no al-Sham”
           B.  Levant and al-Sham are not Synonyms
           C.  France Swtiches to Daesh Acronym

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
- Act II, Scene II of Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

What is in a name?  Well, when it comes to branding … everything.  And that includes the branding of political groups.  While the truth of what a group represents is defined in large part by their deeds and actions, it is also defined, in part, by what others can be convinced to believe they represent.  And this all starts with nomenclature, known in contemporary terms as “spin”.  Normally I would have expected that a group lacking a clear, unambiguous, and universally recognized name would have difficulty maintaining legitimacy or attention.  Perhaps this is my business background biasing my view.  You usually can't get widespread attention for a product or your brand if everyone is referring to it as something different.  But over the last four months I've seen the militant terrorists in Iraq and Syria get just this kind of attention despite the fact that no one can quite seem to agree on what to call them.  I suppose when you destroy lives and property, take control of and oppress populations, and publicly behead those who disagree . . . well then you are bound to capture attention regardless of what various names are being used to refer to you.  So why then all the disparity in names?  And why the multiple news articles and mentions addressing the disparity?   Wouldn’t it just be easiest to go with the self-given name of the group?  Well, let's start with this then.

الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام
This is the self-given name of the militant terrorist group in question.  Not so easy to use in European/western conversation, or oral news reporting, or even for readers to continually recognize in print.  Even the romanization of the Arabic script leaves us with the lengthy: ad-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fīl-ʻIraq wa ash-Shām, which is difficult for western ears, tongues and memories.  So a translation seems the natural course:  Put the name in the native language of the reader/listener.  This will make it easier to refer to, easier to remember, and easier to understand in an instant just what it is that the group is self-proclaiming via their name.  If only translation were so simple a task . . .
  • ad-Dawlah translates easy enough as “the State” (which brings its own issues)
  • al-Islāmīyah is also an easy translation to “Islamic” (also creating issues)
  • fīl-ʻIraq is accepted to translate as “of Iraq”
The first two easily translated words form the “IS” basis of the names IS, ISIS, and ISIL, since there is no dispute that they translate as “the Islamic State”.  And while it’s also readily accepted that the next portion translates as “of Iraq”, it is ambiguity with the final part that leads to the split between the users of ISIS and those of ISIL, and ultimately to those that avoid the dispute entirely by sticking simply with IS.

wa ash-Shām/ ISIS v ISIL
For translators, this is the most complicated portion of the self-given name. It refers to “al-Sham”: a region that is translated either as the Levant or as Syria.  There are some that
claim that al-Sham and the Levant are essentially, or even exactly, the same thing, while others argue that there are cultural differences that indicate the true motivation of the jihadist group we are dealing with.
  • The Levant:  The term first appeared in English in 1497 and is borrowed from the French, levant,  meaning “rising”.   It is used to refer to the east Mediterranean, where the sun rises and is accepted to refer to a geographical and cultural region that includes Cyrpus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and part of Southern Turkey. 
  • al-Sham:  This term refers to Bilad al-Sham which is sometimes also called “Greater Syria”. It is a province that is roughly incorporated by the same area as the Levant, but was in existence far earlier (630s-940s) as an Islamic Caliphate with Damascus as its capital. 
Some of the dispute between using ISIS versus ISIL seems to stem from two sources:   First, and easiest to dismiss is that the last "S" in ISIS shouldn’t stand for “Syria”, as the modern version of this country doesn’t include all the countries of the historical al-Sham.  Most news sources have recognized that the “Syria” translated here is referring to the Greater Syria of old.  Although, to avoid confusion this is why some have chosen “Levant” rather than “Syria” for use in the acronym and have thus gone with ISIL.  The other dispute comes from those that claim al-Sham and Levant are in fact not synonymous, but that the use of al-Sham has a deeper, older, cultural and religious meaning that indicates a “race to Jeruselem” for the militant Islamic group (link B).  Those with this perspective prefer using “ISIS” over “ISIL” with the final “S” referring to al-Sham, not Syria and certainly not the Levant, as they argue that this is a western geographical distinction that ignores the prior religious significance that al-Sham held to the Muslims.

Another major difference in nomenclature for this militant jihadist group comes from the refusal to recognize them as a State, or as representing Islam.  Daesh is a loose
acronym formed from ad-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fīl-ʻIraq wa ash-Shām and is most frequently used by enemies of the group as it has negative undertones: it sounds similar in Arabic to words  Daes meaning "one who crushes something underfoot" and Dahes meaning "one who sows discord".  This name, Daesh, has been officially adopted by the French government (see link C), but I see it most frequently used by Kurds in Syria that I follow on Twitter.  In fact, on Twitter there was a campaign to make the name even more insulting: the winning hashtag was #daeshbag. However, I do still see the runner up, #daesshole, used almost as frequently.  For the terrorists being targeted with the name Daesh, there is strong evidence that they do in deed take offense to it:  there are reports out of northern Iraq that anyone caught using this name is subject to having their tongue cut out by the militants.  It is worth noting that there are westerners and Europeans who are opposed to calling the terrorists Daesh.  They argue that it ignores and hides the fact that the militants are an Islamic religious group intent on converting the world to submit to Islamic rule and law by forcing non-believers into slavery, and/or to pay tax for not being Muslim, and/or being beheaded.

As a civilized people, we like to label and neatly categorize.  I started off feeling this same way;  I was simply annoyed when one newscast said "ISIS" while the U.S. Government said "ISIL" and my Kurd Tweeps said "Daesh".  Like most people, I am more comfortable if everyone is on the same page.  I have come to accept that everyone is not.  In my personal journey to figure out the “right name” for this group, I can’t say that I’ve come to any definitive conclusions.  I know they’re the bad guys.  But I have come to realize that it is much less important what I personally call "them", those evil militant beheaders in the Middle East, and more important that I keep listening to all the different names they call themselves and are being called by others.  And that then I ask “why”?  What motives and beliefs does each group have that cause it to refuse the name that others use and offer one of its own? Only then can I begin to get a glimmer of understanding into the chaos of this region.

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