Explainer: ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State or Da'esh?

When not employing the description ‘death cult’, Prime Minister Tony Abbott prefers to use the name Da'esh because the group ‘hates being referred to by this term’. AAP/Lukas Coch

What’s in a name? Australia is at war with a group that has destabilised the Middle East and threatens Western societies yet the international community can’t agree on what to call it. Is it Islamic State, ISIL, ISIS, Da’esh or, as King Abdullah II of Jordan prefers, al-Khawārij (the Outlaws)?

An evolving name

Through the course of its history the group has changed its name. In its earliest incarnation in the late 1990s it was called Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad).

Following the invasion of Iraq by the international coalition and the shifting of its operations from Jordan to Iraq, the group swore allegiance to al-Qaeda and changed its name in 2004 to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). With the death of the founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the group merged with other militants in 2006, taking on the name Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).

Not until the Arab Spring uprising in Syria and the subsequent descent into civil war did the most recent names appear.

In 2012, ISI established operations in Syria under the name of al-Nusra Front. In the following year, it announced a merger between the two, rebranding the joint operation as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fīl-ʿIrāq wash-Shām), or alternatively translated from the Arabic as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The difference arises in the translation of the word ash-Shām, which is a historical designation for the area around Damascus that led some to translate it as Syria and others as Levant.

Despite al-Nusra refusing the merger, the group retained the name ISIS, establishing its own operations in Syria. On June 29 2014, with the capture of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and having gained control of substantial territory across two countries, an Islamic caliphate was announced. The self-declared name was Islamic State.

Current Usage

The international community has along the way stuck with some of these names, though in some cases adopted new labels.

Jordan’s King Abdullah uses a term that translates as ‘The Outlaws’. AAP/Newzulu/Claude Truong-Ngoc

King Abdullah’s preference for al-Khawārij was chosen as it has historical connotations reminding Muslims of the first extremist group, the Kharajites, who adopted rigid views on who is and isn’t a Muslim as early as the mid-seventh century. Sunni religious establishments in Saudi Arabia and Egypt also use the term to classify the group.

Others prefer to add the qualifier “so-called” Islamic State, though this has little meaning as Islamic State is a proper noun and does not necessarily mean an Islamic state. In the same vein, we do not refer to North Korea as the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nor do Spanish speakers refer to Los Angeles as the so-called City of Angels.

News organisations have each debated and decided on in-house rules. The New York Times, BBC, Australia’s ABC and The Australian have opted for Islamic State. The Guardian has chosen to remain with ISIS.

Australian government’s preference

When referring to Islamic State, the Australian government prefers the Arabic acronym for ISIS, which has been transliterated phonetically to Da’esh. The motivation for this shift in language, seen in early 2015, is according to Prime Minister Tony Abbott that:

Da’esh hates being referred to by this term, and what they don’t like has an instinctive appeal to me.

The derogatory nature of the term Da’esh arises from its phonetic similarity to the Arabic word “daes”, which means “one who tramples down”. There are unverified reports that the group flogs people who use the term Da’esh.

Another motivation for Australia’s government to eschew the terminology of Islamic State may lie with Muslim community groups objecting to the term. This view was represented in a letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron:

We do not believe the terror group responsible should be given the credence and standing they seek by styling themselves Islamic State. It is neither Islamic, nor is it a state. The group has no standing with faithful Muslims, nor among the international community of nations. It clearly will never accept the obligations that any legitimate state has, including the responsibility to protect citizens and uphold human rights.

In this way both the British and Australian governments are attempting to quash conscious or sub-conscious associations between Islam and the group ostensibly fighting in its name.

This is not an uncommon tactic in politics. We have often seen on both sides of the political divide arguments over whether a levy is a tax, the latter having a negative association in the public eye. Even reaching back historically, our wartime prime ministers did not refer to Hitler’s rule as the “Thousand Year Reich” or even the “Third Reich”, either of which would have legitimated the Nazi propaganda of a historical progression from the First Reich, Holy Roman Empire, through to their rule.

The political use of ISIS rather than Islamic State acknowledges the heavy responsibility politicians carry in shaping public discourse and the importance that words play in influencing community perceptions. Scholars, less burdened by such concerns, tend to refer to the group in its self-designated form, arguing the imperative for an apolitical approach. Journalists appear torn between reporting the facts and playing a role in legitimating the usurpation of a religion.

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