French President Francois Hollande and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are among the leaders now using the term “Daesh” to refer to the group most commonly called ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham) or ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Daesh is the acronym for the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. At news@Northeastern, we follow Associated Press style, which uses the phrase “the Islamic State group.”
What do these switches in nomenclature mean? We asked three Northeastern faculty members—Jonathan Kaufman, director of the School of Journalism, Shakir Mustafa, teaching professor of Arabic, and Heather Littlefield, associate teaching professor in linguistics—to help us understand why the name matters.
What does “Daesh” mean? What are its origins and its relationship to the other names?
SHAKIR MUSTAFA: Daesh is the Arabic acronym standing for the Islamic State in the Levant. It was used before the group took control of northern Iraq and eastern Syria. Acronyms are not common in Arabic, but Arabs across the Arab world fell in love with this one because it rhymes with or suggests a number of nefarious words and concepts in Arabic: “Committer of heinous crimes,” “crusher,” “crumbler,” “shocker.” What better way to not acknowledge the group? Daesh also sounded disrespectful enough to annoy the group.
Today many Arabs use the nefarious Arabic words to refer to ISIS rather than the acronym itself. A student in one of my classes told me how Saudi Arabia is popularizing the word “Fahish” (“committer of heinous crimes”) in referring to the group. Other “close” words currently in use are “Dahis” (the one who hits others with a vehicle), “Daeick” (crumbler, crusher), and “Dahish” (surpriser, shocker).
This terrorist group has gone by many names. How does the media determine how to identify such a group? What, if any, role should the media play in changing our use of the term ISIS or ISIL to Daesh?
JONATHAN KAUFMAN: In general, the media tends to follow the lead of the U.S. government in deciding what to call countries or states. In this case, the decision is complicated since all three names carry political overtones. If you use the term ISIS does that mean you favor intervention in Syria? If you use ISIL, are you supporting President Barack Obama’s approach? If you use Daesh, are you trying to delegitimize ISIS by using a term that is both an acronym but also could carry a pejorative meaning in Arabic?
Readers and viewers seem interested in this debate; a Boston Globe article about the different terms was recently among the most-read stories for several days. I think that if world leaders and U.S. politicians start using the term Daesh regularly, it will slip into regular journalistic use, just as Myanmar replaced Burma. Until then, newsrooms need to decide which title conveys the news fastest and most clearly, especially in headlines and news bulletins. Right now, for Americans, that term is ISIS.
Why does the language we use to identify a group or a cause matter? And how can the terms we use for this particular group make a difference politically, emotionally, and perhaps even in the outcome of what President Holland calls France’s “war” against these terrorists?
HEATHER LITTLEFIELD: There are many ways to indicate who we are as people, both at an individual and a collective level: the ways we dress, the cars we drive, the neighborhoods we live in, the music we listen to, the beer we drink. All of these are symbolic markers of how we want other people to see us. One of the most nuanced of these symbolic markers is language. We shift our linguistic usage—from our word choice (do you say “purse,” “pocketbook,” or “handbag”?) to our pronunciation (do you say, “going to go” or “gonna go”?)—depending on how we want others to perceive us. So a name of a group can be seen as one highly visible symbolic marker of what that group represents.
Additionally, it’s important to consider who is doing the naming. If we name ourselves as a group, that symbolizes our autonomy and power to define ourselves. But others forcing a name on us symbolizes a lack of power to define ourselves, and gives that power to another group. Consider the practice of the U.S. government in the late 1800s to change the names of Native Americans to “English” names like Thomas, Mary, and Richard. The government was literally trying to take away one identity and replace it with another.
Using the word Daesh seems to be an effort to re-define the group from the outside. The group known by ISIS or ISIL is not happy with that. It wants to be taken as an Islamic state, which both ISIS and ISIL reference. But many have suggested that these terms are inaccurate and even offensive: ISIS/ISIL is not a legitimate nation-state, and it doesn’t represent Islam. The French government made the shift to Daesh in September 2014, adopting the term used by much of the Arab world. Now we in the U.S. are becoming aware of the term because of recent events in France. Emotionally, the choice of a name may help populations rally to a cause and help people feel like they are fighting against ISIS/ISIL, at least symbolically. But an individual word by itself can’t really alter the course of a war.