POLITICS
12/11/2014 03:46 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2014

Bye-Bye 'ISIL'? John Kerry Calling ISIS By Arabic Term It Hates

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John Kerry is a distinguished diplomat with impeccable manners -- but that doesn't mean he's above lobbing a well-placed insult when it comes to enemies of the United States.

Kerry made clear earlier this week that he is committed to referring to the Islamic State as "Daesh," a name that the group considers so degrading that it has threatened to kill anyone under Islamic State rule who uses it. The Islamic State's opponents in the Muslim world have already embraced the name.

"Daesh" is an acronym for the Arabic phrase meaning the "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria" (though the last word can also be translated as "Damascus" or "Levant"), and it is thought to offend the extremist group because it sounds similar to an Arabic word for crushing something underfoot.

Daesh in Arabic "sounds like something monstrous. ... It's a way of stigmatizing [the Islamic State], making it something ugly," Joseph Bahout, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Huffington Post.

Appearing Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to discuss a new congressional authorization of military force, Kerry said the Obama administration sought an authorization "specifically against the terrorist group known as ISIL, though in the region is it called Daesh, and specifically because they believe very deeply it is not a state and it does not represent Islam."

Kerry used Daesh and ISIL -- an acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has been the administration's preferred form of reference to the group -- interchangeably throughout his remarks.

Kerry had referred to the group as Daesh a few days earlier in Brussels and then in Washington, but the Senate appearance Tuesday represented his first effort to explain why Daesh is a more suitable name than options such as ISIS (an acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) or simply IS.

Kerry's justification for using the name Daesh is to undermine the Sunni extremists' claims to statehood and leadership of the global Muslim community. This echoes the message put out by French foreign minister Laurent Fabius months ago. France, which has a sizable Muslim population and deep roots in the Muslim world because of its colonial history, began using the term Daesh in mid-September.

"This is a terrorist group and not a state. I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats,'" Fabius said at the time.

What differentiates the term Daesh from other acronyms is not its actual meaning, but its resonance across the Arab world. This includes its effect among regional actors, like U.S.-backed moderate rebels in Syria, who could be key to the administration's strategy against the extremist group. Kerry's endorsement of the name is therefore a subtle but clear diplomatic move that builds on his first references to the term in October and on its use by retired Gen. John Allen, the envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State, during his travels throughout the Middle East.

It remains unclear whether this rhetorical choice represents a shift in government policy. A State Department spokesperson told The Huffington Post Wednesday that the agency "uses both Daesh (as it is known in the region and in some other countries) and ISIL to refer to the terrorist organization.” But another spokesperson told The Washington Post last weekthat there was no change in policy and that the group is still referred to as ISIL in "routine matters and documents."

Bahout, the Carnegie Endowment expert and a former adviser to the French foreign ministry, said the French government's adoption of the name "Daesh" in September provided a level of official Western recognition for a term that has deep roots in the revolution against Syrian President Bashar Assad, which began in 2011. The anti-Assad uprising helped create the complicated civil war in Syria that ISIS has exploited to build its strength and capture territory.

He added that Syrian revolutionaries have used the term to refer to ISIS and the Assad regime has used it to refer to all groups it opposes (including the U.S.-backed moderate rebels).

But the broad, and not always clear, application of the term tempers the impact of Kerry's shift, Bahout said. Spreading the term could help the Assad regime paint all the non-government forces in Syria -- including U.S.-backed groups -- with the same brush: because the Syrian government uses Daesh to mean any non-government "terrorist," it can point to U.S. references to that name to imply the U.S. has come around to its position.

And even if the move represents some kind of outreach to the moderate Syrian opposition that the U.S. plans to train and equip, Bahout said, the name change is cold comfort given that what they really want is for the U.S. to confront Assad directly instead of condemning his regime and calling for a political solution. France has called for the U.S.-led coalition against the extremist groups to aggressively support the rebel-held stronghold of Aleppo, which is caught between Assad's forces and those of the Islamic State.

"Frankly, I don't think it will matter," Bahout said of the newly adopted moniker. "If American diplomacy wants really to imitate France on that level, they would better be advised to follow the French on Syria [and] admit that Assad is a problem" to be treated more seriously.

HuffPost

BEFORE YOU GO

CONVERSATIONS