What’s in a Name?

Why are we calling a group that is neither Islamic nor a state ‘the Islamic State’?

Daesh flag

ANOTHER day, another conference on counter terrorism, or whatever we’re calling it this week. I’ve been on the circuit long enough to know the format: academic presentations, some of which are insightful, some statistical, some irrelevant, some just plain bizarre; a chance to learn the latest buzzwords, keep up with the latest fads (COIN – out, CVE – in); the social side, where the real business is done; and a nice break in a nice hotel in a nice city (Rome, Riga, Lisbon, Abu Dhabi and, on this occasion, Ankara). Oh, and the obligatory participant with a tangential point to make, a drum to beat throughout the conference/workshop/course.


Except this time, while the point is made regularly throughout the conference like the chiming of the clock, it is not tangential. If anything, it is fundamental to the discussion of counter terrorism right now and it comes, appropriately, from a Tunisian army officer, and is echoed variously by Turkish, Pakistani and Jordanian participants. We need to stop calling ‘it’ the Islamic State.


I normally prickle at the use of ‘we’ (in my experience ‘we need to do something’ usually means I end up having to do a lot of work) but my Tunisian comrade is correct – it is the collective ‘we’ who are at fault, the westerners dealing directly with terrorism or violent extremism or whatever we’re calling it this week. Western militaries, western governments, western media all default onto ‘Islamic State’ or ‘ISIS’ (the Islamic State in Iraq & Syria or the Shams) or ISIL (the Islamic State in the Levant). They’re relatively accurate translations of the term the group uses for itself in Arabic, ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī ‘l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām. (It’s currently cool to call them ‘Da’esh’, an acronym of the latter which is also close in sound to an Arabic word meaning ‘destructive’ and which will get you your tongue cut out if you use it in Da’esh controlled areas.)


This isn’t a new discussion. But what is new is that this is first time I have heard a group of Muslims, many of whom live next door to Da’esh, discuss how to refer to the group. It is quite clear that the Muslim participants, all of whom seem very westernised and liberal in their interpretation of Islam (like most of the many Muslims I know), are nonetheless offended that westerners routinely recognise this particular group as being both Islamic and also a state.


It’s a very pertinent point, bearing in mind the fact that, while we drop the occasional bomb and train some people here and there, Tunisia, Turkey, Jordan et al are the ones who will be doing the dirty work in combating these groups. For many of these countries, this is an existential threat: for us, it is not. (We would be doing a lot more if western society was actually facing an existential threat, even if media commentators tell you otherwise during their paid-for rants.)


What should we call it then? There are a wealth of suggestions from the participants: the Un-Islamic State (I thought of that one – no-one else liked it, but I’m writing the blog piece so it gets a mention); the Iraq-Syria Border Terrorists (although better if we could get an insulting acronym out of it); and the Baghdadi Gang (nice because it reduces it to an individual, to a criminal gang).


But Da’esh seems most acceptable to the Muslim participants. Da’esh is what the group is known as routinely in my own neck of the terrorism woods, Somalia as well.


‘But will the western media be able to pronounce it?’ asks a western academic who studies the western media in a western university. The Arabic letter ‘ayn’ is a back-of-the-throat sound and is generally rendered as an apostrophe when transliterated in English (‘da’esh’ pronounced ‘da-quick pause-esh’, ‘qa’ida‘ pronounced ‘ka-quick pause-ih-da’). But that’s quite an ask for the western meeja, so ‘qa’ida’ becomes ‘ka-yee-da’ (close to ‘coyote’, so more pronouncable). Hence ‘ISIS’ or ‘ISIL’ or just plain old ‘Islamic State’. (Let’s ignore, for the moment, the fact that I’m sure those meeja folks can manage to properly pronounce paella and rioja in the tapas bar near the studio once they’re off air.)


The point is that ‘we’, the westerners in the meeja, the military, the government and on the western street, should flex our tongues and our cheeks and our throats in a more constructive manner than we usually do, and stop calling ‘them’ the Islamic State and jihadis and Islamic terrorists. We’re insulting the people who are living with and fighting the threat. Our hundreds killed are their hundreds of thousands. No-one referred to the Irish Republican Army as ‘Catholic Terrorists’ (except maybe in a few Shankhill pubs and UDR drinking clubs) though the majority were Catholics. We didn’t routinely credit the virtual no-go areas of Belfast or Derry or South Armagh as being states. It’s akin to the way we used to racialise crime. So why are we treating the threat from al-Qa’ida and Da’esh differently?


This sits within a bigger problem, the flaw with what the academics call our ‘meta-narrative’ (the big, unifying story our leaders and influencers are telling us). A luminary of my acquaintance, Paul Bell, explained it well in his speech, ‘ISIS and Violent Extremism: Is the West’s Counter-Narrative Making the Problem Worse?’, delivered at the Hedayah Institute in Abu Dhabi (another one of those workshop/conference/courses).


Yes, there is a threat, and Francois Hollande is allowed to call it a ‘war’ when he is interviewed in the immediate aftermath of an attack. He’s French and they’re emotional. But it is not a war for us, it is not a threat to our existence. It is for the people we are inadvertently but consistently offending by Islamicising the problem and giving credit to a gang of terrorists, sadists and criminals who happen to control a bit of territory – for the moment.


So say after me, ‘Da-esh, Da-esh, Da-esh…’






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