What’s in a Terrorist Name?

What’s in a Terrorist Name?

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

Editor’s Notebook

If a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, shouldn’t a terrorist organization by any name be recognizably evil?

Yet as much as I’ve heard arguments about how to respond to Islamic State, especially since the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris and the San Bernardino slaughter Dec. 2, I’ve also seen disputes about what to call the terrorists under the leadership of caliph wannabe Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The group’s name in Arabic is ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi l-Iraq wa-sh-Sham or just ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah, neither of which works for an English-speaking audience. When the group seemingly came out of nowhere in 2014 while being dismissed by President Barack Obama as a “JV team,” the international media used the translation Islamic State in Iraq and Syria because the acronym ISIS is easy to remember and, to the dark humor endemic in the news business, kind of funny.

Michael Jacobs
Michael Jacobs

As it became clear that the group was not a local problem or a second-rate Al-Qaeda, the more accurate Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the acronym ISIL became more common. The president used ISIL almost 20 times in his Oval Office speech Sunday night, Dec. 6.

But once a term like ISIS takes hold, it’s not going to be displaced in popular use by a less catchy acronym. That applies to ISIL and to the awkward IS, short for Islamic State, which requires shifting from reading the acronym as a word, as we do with ISIS and ISIL, to reading it as a couple of letters. Otherwise, it’s just “is,” giving a new dimension to Bill Clinton’s famous deposition discussion over “what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

A popular alternative is Daesh, the Arabic acronym for the organization. Advocates for Daesh argue that it removes the legitimacy of Islamic State (or the acronym equivalent) and avoids promoting the group’s self-proclaimed Islamic ideology. We’re also told that Daesh insults the group because the Arabic word is a derogatory term for bigots or because al-Baghdadi and his boys just don’t like seeing their name shortened. (The AJT doesn’t have easy access to Islamic State leaders to verify that claim or ask why ISIS or ISIL wouldn’t also insult them.)

As acronyms, Daesh, ISIS and ISIL all mean the same thing: an Islamic state in Iraq and an area that covers all or parts of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and, yes, Israel. Using Daesh is giving the group the same recognition for being Muslim and being a de facto nation as using ISIS or ISIL or Islamic State.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center used “self-proclaimed Islamic State” in its report finding that the group last year committed genocide — a charge, it’s worth noting, previously made against only nations and groups backed by national governments.

“We’ve used Islamic State because that seems to be the most widely understood and used. … It’s easiest to understand,” said Cameron Hudson, the center’s director, who added that a different choice would have represented an unwanted political statement.

Asked about the cultural destruction carried out by the group, Bar-Ilan University archaeologist Aren Maeir criticized “this idiotic debate that they are Islam or they are not Islam. They are not Islam, and they are not not Islam. They are Muslim, and they represent some aspect of Islam.”

Islam has at least 1.6 billion adherents, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center estimate. No one group can be said to represent all Jews or the Jewish viewpoint, and we number less than 1 percent of the world’s Muslims. Of course Islamic State’s ideology reflects a minority view, but that doesn’t mean it lacks roots in an interpretation of Islam that its followers believe to be the truth.

We use Islamic State because that simple phrase conveys how the group sees itself and what it wants to achieve. Clearly conveying information is our job as a news organization, and, as human beings, it helps to understand an enemy if we want to defeat it.

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