Of the many Islamist factions fighting in the Syrian conflict, one has an ongoing graphic global online campaign that has sought to showcase its atrocities in a perverted display of might. The world has been horrified by these ongoing spectacles, but observers of the region have been fascinated by the way the group has sought to redefine its identity. A seemingly harmless way the so-called Islamic State has tried to control its image is through a continual effort of branding and marketing. In response, world organizations have debated what to call the extremist Islamist faction that has proven such a source of international outrage and is so often the target of pointed denouncements. From the widely used ISIS, to its variant ISIL, to IS, to Daesh, the names chosen to identify the group provide insight both into the views of commentators and also into the goals of the extremists themselves.
The Islamist terror faction, originating in Iraq but already a major force in Syria by April 2013, decided to rebrand itself through social media announcements from its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to declare its new identity as the 'Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.' ISIS, the English acronym for the 'Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham' has been a popular choice to describe the organization in the world media since al-Baghdadi's announcement. That same announcement in Arabic has also been commonly rendered as ISIL, which translates as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. Although the difference between these two acronyms may seem slight, it is important to understand why many organizations are divided on which acronym to use.
When it comes to using ISIS, English speakers often fail to make the distinction between the Arabic word al-Sham and Syria. In Arabic, al-Sham is commonly used to describe a loosely-defined region encompassing much of modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, as well as parts of Turkey and Iraq, although it is also a way to describe a shared colloquial Arabic most commonly used to cover a narrower group of countries, specifically Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Syria. Al-Sham has the beautifully useful property of being both loosely defined on a modern map and being loosely defined by definition. The problem with understanding the extremist group as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria rather than al-Sham is that Syria can be taken to mean any number of things, definitions that can be either intensely specific or purposefully vague. Trying to place the followers of al-Baghdadi into the modern borders of Syria puts limits on the group's aims that are inconsistent with the expansive goals of its leadership. To avoid this source of confusion, organizations including the U.S. State Department, opted to use the ISIL acronym, with Levant as the translation for al-Sham that is at once more recognizable in English with its historical roots and understood to define a general region that does not exist in the context of modern state borders.
Despite the group's efforts to brand itself as simply the Islamic State, or IS for short, many organizations and governments continue to use the terms ISIS or ISIL. The moniker of Islamic State is problematic on several fronts. If we only wish to accurately capture the group's expansive goals when deciding which name to use, the Islamic State is by far the most accurate. Removing regional identifiers reflects the group's shift towards spreading outside of the areas it controls through alliances and recruitment, as was notably demonstrated by the execution of 21 Egyptian Copts by a Libyan ISIL group; Libya, of course, is far removed from the geographic identifiers of the group's possible names. However, choosing to honor the group's decision to be named the Islamic State is fundamentally flawed. First, it is a name that is meant to suggest that this particular group of Sunni extremists is the sole Islamist faction fighting in the conflict zones of Iraq and Syria, which is untrue on any level. And second, and more egregious, the group's branding as the Islamic State is meant to conflate its own brand of Islam with the religion and its worldwide community as a whole. To respect the wishes of the so-called Islamic State is to propagate the idea that it represents Islam on a wide scale and paints those who choose to use the acronym IS as little more than an extension of IS's propaganda machine, conferring a sense of legitimacy to a claim that is not deserved.
Although some English language sources here in the Arab world opt to describe the group as the "so-called Islamic State", the description is not nearly as widespread as the Arabic version of the acronym, Daesh, which stands for al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham, the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham. (The English transliteration of the Arabic would suggest the acronym would read Da'ish, as some media organizations inaccurately report, with the acronym transliterated from the Arabic acronym which is written داعش. The د becomes D, the ا becomes A, the ع, which is pronounced ein and has no direct equivalent, becomes E, and the ش is the letter shin, always reflected in English as SH, making Daesh).
A Jordanian development worker with whom I recently spoke remarked that English-speakers, particularly Americans, tend to consistently overuse acronyms. It is easiest to notice this in Arab countries where acronyms are so infrequently used. Notably, the widespread use of Daesh emerged not because of its geographic associations, but due to the fact that it sounds similar to words evoking crushing, trampling and stomping. As such, Daesh offers an opportunity for a usable and decidedly non-neutral way of referring to the so-called Islamic State. Since the term Daesh appeared in 2013, it has made waves throughout the Arab World and beyond for those wishing to express their opposition to these Islamist fighters. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stated that he would use Daesh when referring to the group, calling them "les egorgeurs de Daesh", the Daesh cutthroats.
In Jordan, after the brutal public execution of Royal Jordanian Air Force Pilot Muath al-Kassassbeh in February, public opinion of the extremist faction has been hostile throughout most of the Kingdom. Where you would hear Daesh in Amman, and read about its atrocities in the local English and Arabic newspapers, in Zarqa governorate, once home to the infamous founder of Al-Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one more often reads of the Islamic State, not Daesh. Jordan is fundamentally opposed to Daesh and its goals, and so, for the residents of Zarqa to choose to use the IS moniker could be taken as a statement of political support.
In the past few weeks, a Yemeni with whom I discussed the recent conflict in his homeland has noticed a similar change as the extremist group's members have publicly declared their intention to attack the Houthis, the widely hated group of Shiite rebels whose armed insurrection is at the heart of the wave of violence that has engulfed the country. As it became apparent that Daesh was indeed against the Houthis in Yemen, he noticed a marked increase in native Yemenis using Islamic State as opposed to Daesh. Although many of these Yemenis would still never wish to see a Daesh controlled Yemen, one can infer from the change in how they refer to the extremist group as a show of their support for a decisive defeat of the Houthis.
In the constantly shifting tide of violence and extremism that afflicts states throughout the region, what we choose to call these militant Islamists matters, and provides a clear insight in expressing one's position.