ISIS or Daesh. Why Does it Matter What We Call Them?

An enemy by any other name


(Durrah Alsaif)

There has been a change in the official language used by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals lately. Anyone who’s been paying attention to the speeches of Trudeau and his ministers may have noticed that the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has not been referred to by that name or any other variation of such. Instead, Trudeau and those under him have been referring to this particular apocalyptic death cult by the name “Daesh.”

The Trudeau government is joining a growing list of government officials and media figures worldwide to switch to the alternate label.

Some have greeted the news with indifference or even a roll of the eyes. One online comment likened the Fed’s simple shift in terminology to the French flag filter that spread across Facebook after the Paris attacks—an ultimately meaningless gesture.

It’s not hard to understand the eye rolling. Trudeau’s decision to switch up the terminology is a very safe one. By saying “Daesh” rather than “ISIS,” Trudeau gets to look like he’s taking some kind of hard stance every time he refers to the group without actually making any real changes. It’s easy see why, to some, the shift is nothing more than calculated political optics.

It’s also safe for me as a student journalist to use whatever name I please to describe a group of dangerous people from far away, like a child teasing a gorilla from the outside of a sturdy cage.

So, what’s in a name? Does it really matter what we call them?

The reasoning Liberals give for the name change centres around the inaccuracy of the term “state.” Chantal Gagnon, press secretary to the Foreign Affairs Office, told the Huffington Post, “ISIL is no state and never will be.”

Motivated by political optics or not, Trudeau and company may have a point.

First off, the title of “Islamic State” is technically inaccurate. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, there are several requirements that need to be fulfilled in order to meet the definition of a sovereign state. A state must have it’s own defined territory under its control, a population, independence from other states, and the recognition of national and international institutions.

ISIS does, in fact, control a significant territory within Iraq and Syria and unfortunately has a large population of people under their control. However, while they do have authority within their territory, they don’t have the ability to enter into agreements with legitimate states, meaning they don’t fully satisfy the requirement for independence. They are also not recognized as a state by any legitimate state or international institution.

As far as journalists are concerned, we may not be able to refer to them as the “Islamic State” purely for the sake of accuracy.

Furthermore, referring to them as ISIS plays into their own branding efforts. Strange as it may sound, in an ideological war such as the one being fought, branding plays a key role. This is an organisation that is attempting to claim supreme authority over the entire Islamic world. They need a well-managed image in order to do that. In however small a way, such branding is specifically designed to appeal to their target audience—people prone to being radicalised, mainly disenfranchised Islamic youth—and there’s no reason for Western media or legitimate states such as Canada to contribute to that.

So why use this “Daesh” name in particular? The word Daesh is actually just an Arabic acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Taken literally, it’s not that different from referring to them as ISIS. What makes this acronym interesting, however, is its similarity in pronunciation to the Arabic word that means “sowers of discord.” Sowing discord is considered a fundamental sin in Islamic doctrine. The term is so offensive to a group that wants to speak for all of Islam that they have vowed to cut out the tongues of anyone who uses it—which is what makes it so commendable that the term has been adopted by Daesh-rejecting people across the Middle East.

As easy as it is for Western politicians and journalists to call the group whatever we want from the safety of our offices in first world countries without fear of retaliation, for the people within their reach, using the word Daesh can be a dangerous political act.

So does it matter if we here in the West call them ISIS or Daesh? Maybe a little. It’s true that the group is going to keep fighting with the fury of true fanatics whether we call them ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. If it truly makes no real difference how I chose to refer to these particular terrorists in my own writing, I’ll go with the name that the bastards hate over the one they chose.


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