State the obvious

Further to my previous blog on when to call something terrorism, there has been an ongoing debate on what to call the Islamic State (or as it is also known, ISIL or ISIS or DAESH or…).  A recent op-ed in the English edition of Asharq Alawsat (see it here) calls on us to stop calling the Islamic State the “Islamic State” since the terrorist group is neither Islamic nor a state.

I am attempted to flippantly remark “whatever” but I think this issue needs more attention.

On the one hand, we have to call the Islamic State the “Islamic State” because that is what it calls itself.  The name does not have to reflect reality: after all North Korea calls itself the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea despite the embarrassing fact that it is neither democratic nor popular nor a republic nor technically “Korea” (you might want to ask the South Koreans about that part).

Sometimes groups will alter their names to avoid awkward interpretations. The Palestinian FATAH party is an Arabic acronym for “Palestinian National Liberation Movement”, except that if it were really that the acronym would be HATAF (reflecting the order of words in Arabic).  Problem: HATAF means ‘death’ or ‘someone who digs his own grave’ in Arabic, not a great slogan for a political party.  Hence the acronym was reversed: FATAH means ‘opening’ or ‘beginning’ a great name for an outfit trying to establish a state.

If we choose to call the Islamic State something else, what should that be? Some have proposed sticking to the group’s Arabic name: DAESH, and some countries in fact have abandoned ISIL or ISIS for DAESH (see article here). Others have noted that the word ‘daesh’ sounds like the Arabic words meaning ‘someone who crushes something underfoot’ or ‘someone who sows discord’.  Which you gotta admit the group excels in.

But here is the problem.  If we call it DAESH we have changed nothing.  The ‘d’ in DAESH stands for the Arabic word ‘dawla’ which means ‘state’ and the ‘a’ stands for ‘islamiya’ which means ‘Islamic’.  So we throw out the phrase “Islamic State” and replace it with the Arabic phrase for – “Islamic State”.


I don’t accept the argument that calling the group a state helps to bolster its image.  IS is doing a lot right on a number of levels to attract recruits: it has territory, it has re-established the historical Caliphate, it sees itself standing up against Western aggression (fact: no US invasion of Iraq in 2003 no IS), it is cool, it is “winning”, etc.  Changing the name changes none of this.

The IS by any other name would be as brutal.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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