Naming An Enemy: Islamic State, IS, ISIL, ISIS, Or Daesh?

On April 8, 2013 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the formation of a group named al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-Iraq wa-al-Sham. Arabic language media took to referring to this now infamous group by the Arabic acronym Daesh. The English language media generally chose the English acronym ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), although the State Department and the White House chose instead ISIL (The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). This split between ISIS or ISIL reflects two different understandings of the Arabic term al-Sham. In a classical sense al-Sham can refer to "Greater Syria" or "the Levant" (an area that covers also Lebanon and sometimes Palestine and Jordan and further territories as well). However, al-Sham is also used in a modern sense to refer specifically to the country of Syria (or even the city of Damascus alone). Presumably some expert in the Obama administration who knew the classical sense of the term sent out a memo recommending ISIL over ISIS. The administration's choice - which had the advantage of avoiding any confusion with the Egyptian god ISIS, or ISIS Pharmaceuticals - caused some confusion in the general public.

That confusion would only increase when, sometime around the end of 2014 (presumably after another memo), the Arabic acronym Daesh began to appear in administration statements. Indeed Daesh has now become the administration's standard title for the movement (as in the March 17, 2016 address by John Kerry: "Remarks on Daesh and Genocide"). This change had nothing to do with the way the movement refers to itself. In fact, on June 29, 2014 Abu Bakr al-Baghdad declared that the movement's territories were no longer limited to Iraq and Syria, that it was now a worldwide caliphate, and that the movement would accordingly now be called simply al-Dawla al-Islamiyya ("The Islamic State"). Some in the English media acknowledged the change and began referring to the "Islamic State" (or IS). The administration, however, stubbornly held on to ISIL (not wishing to acknowledge Baghdadi's claims of global relevance) until, that is, they dropped ISIL for Daesh.

So what explains the appearance of an Arabic acronym in English communications by an American administration? The problem was evidently the "Islamic" in "Islamic State." Both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have repeatedly insisted that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's movement has nothing to do with Islam. In February John Kerry explained: "Daesh is in fact nothing more than a mixture of killers, of kidnappers, of criminals, of thugs, of adventurers, of smugglers and thieves." He continued by calling them apostates: "And they are also above all apostates, people who have hijacked a great religion and lie about its real meaning and lie about its purpose and deceive people in order to fight for their purposes."

The description of ISIS/Daesh fighters as apostates (which Kerry later walked back) is curious. To begin with, one wonders whether it's a public officials job to decide who is a believer and who is not (or, for that matter, which religions are great and which are not). More to the point, an apostate according to standard Islamic jurisprudence is someone who has rejected either the belief in one God or the belief in Muhammad as his prophet. This ISIS/Daesh devotees have not done. Accordingly the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb (recently in the news because of his meeting with Pope Francis) pointedly refused to call members of ISIS/Daesh apostates in a December 2014 statement. The Azhar statement explained the reasoning clearly: one cannot reject others' Islamic faith (an act known as takfir) because of their sins, but only because of their rejection of the faith. If sins were enough to put someone outside of the fold of Islam, al-Tayeb went on to say, then no Muslim would be safe: " if I denounce them of being un-Islamic, I fall into the same [trap] I am now condemning."

Thus there is a strange disjunction in rhetoric about ISIS/Daesh. Al-Azhar criticizes ISIS/Daesh for their actions but acknowledges their belief in God and Muhammad. In the West, however, political figures, intellectuals, and religious leaders repeat almost as a mantra that the "Islamic State" is not Islamic (with the exception of Graeme Wood's Atlantic article which insists that it is "very Islamic"). Cardinal Dolan has said that the group is just as Islamic as the IRA was Catholic. In January of this year David Cameron criticized the BBC on just this point: "I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State because it's not an Islamic State; what it is is an appalling, barbarous regime." Of course, by embracing Daesh (the name not the movement) neither Cameron nor Kerry have gotten rid of the reference to Islam - which is still present in the Arabic acronym. More importantly, they have also not gotten rid of the appeal which this group, whatever it is named, continues to have for certain Muslims.