Islamic State versus Da'ish or Daesh? The political battle over naming

In condemning terrorist attacks in Paris, French president Francois Hollande (center) used the term Da'ish to refer to Islamic State, a deliberate naming change. Reuters

In responding to the attacks on multiple sites in Paris, French President François Hollande announced that Da’ish had declared war on France and promised retaliation. But why didn’t he call it the Islamic State? Or ISIL, like Barack Obama would? Or ISIS, as The New York Times or the BBC would? And why does it matter?

After all, all the terms refer to the same group: al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq al-Sham. Most English-speaking organizations translate the name into the acronym ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), while some others translate the name into the acronym ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

President Hollande was merely following his government’s official policy of using the Arabic acronym of the group’s full name, Da’ish (Daech in French and also spelled Daesh in English). In doing so, the French government joins many Arabic-speaking governments in using the term – including that of Syria.

However, the Islamic State does not really like the moniker. It prefers to call itself a Caliphate or simply “The Islamic State.”

Just what people call this group is important because different names create different degrees of familiarity or foreignness with specific target audiences in order to recruit supporters, identify enemies or persuade the undecided. This, in turn, creates a sense of solidarity for or against that group.

Not by accident

By presenting itself as the Caliphate, the group justifies its existence in terms of both religious purity and the restoration of a broken historical continuity.

Initially, the Islamic State made a geographic claim of being in Iraq and Syria, but in the summer of 2014 it abandoned that limitation and now claims to be an authority without any geographic boundaries. This has been reinforced by the granting of allegiance to a diverse array of Islamic militant groups from North Africa to Afghanistan, such as its branches in Libya or the Sinai Peninsula.

That the group’s opponents would like to influence its name also should not be surprising. For Arabic speakers, the term Da’ish invokes plays on words to mean “one who crushes” and “one who spreads disorder.” Both are indicative of the attitudes of Syria’s regime and the different militias that oppose both the regime and the Islamic State.

Pro-Western governments, like Jordan’s, also use the term while bolstering their version of moderate and tolerant Islam. The French government explained the choice in naming as part of an effort to avoid legitimizing the group by denying that it was either a state or Islamic.

The French government’s use of the Arabic acronym, however, also creates an Orientalizing connotation. By using the foreign word instead of translating it into French, the term becomes more exotic and creates a sense of difference. The intent may be to try to drive a wedge between militants “over there” and “good Muslims” at home.

In the fall of 2014, the French government decided to stop using Islamic State in favor of Daesh. But the name change was decried by France’s right wing opposition, which favors greater restrictions on immigration and minority rights, under the argument that the term denies the reality that Muslims from France have participated in terrorist attacks in France.

Delegitimizing?

Part of the confusion in the naming of the Islamic State group comes from the fact that it is a new type of organization that is unlike the now-familiar al-Qaida. The Islamic State group is part militia, part insurgency, part terrorist organization, part irredentist movement, and part proto-state.

Taking a step to spread violence in Western Europe demonstrates a new geographic reach. But the Paris assault borrows tactics from previous attacks, such as those in Syria, Iraq, Tunisia and Kuwait. The strategy behind the Islamic State’s actions is to strengthen social divisions among communities and then offer their “protection” to the aggrieved Sunni Muslim minorities.

Different politicians are attempting to legitimize or delegitimize the Islamic State through the process of naming – and use of the word Da'ish is one attempt to take some control from the group.

The fear of the group’s opponents is that by using the group’s own terminology – that is, Islamic State – it will admit that the states of Iraq and Syria failed to offer their citizens protection. Calling Da’ish names, however, won’t solve that problem.