28 November 2015


Following the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris, the French and U.S. presidents, as well as the U.S. secretary of state, attributed the attack to "Daesh" instead of Islamic State.

The terror group hasn't changed its name, but Western politicians are finally using the term our Middle Eastern allies have always used and prefer we do as well.

We should stop using "Islamic State," "ISIS," and "ISIL" and call them Daesh. For several reasons.

Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the terror group's self-declared banner — "al-Dowla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham." That translates in English to "the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant." The Levant refers to countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean. Those under their occupation in places like Mosul and Ramadi are severely punished and permanently maimed if they don't use the full title. The terrorists consider it an affront and insult to be referred to as Daesh. That's reason enough to use the term.

This summer I was sternly corrected during a conversation about the situation in Iraq. I was speaking Arabic but thinking like an American, and used the term "al-Dowla al-Islamiya." My friend Emad, a former Iraqi army major who fought side-by-side with U.S. forces and who is now a U.S. citizen, said, "Mitch, you must never, ever use the terms 'Islamic' or 'state' to describe them. You just gave them legitimacy by saying those words. They are assassins and mercenaries. They are neither Islamic nor are they a state. They are far worse than anything you or I fought against when we were there."
From here.

Language Log has audio clips of the pronunciation of Daesh and the term is discussed in the comments here.  More in depth analysis and commentary here.

The thing that makes "Daesh" a particularly odd bird linguistically is that unlike Indo-European languages where acronyms are commonplace, Arabic apparently rarely uses the device of forming acronyms which are then used as words.

I'm also ambivalent about the virtues of using an English acronym as opposed to an Arabic acronym that refer to the same words in the respective languages.  And, while their opponents may not wish to grant ISIS legitimacy to a group they see as assassin's and mercenaries, I'm not sure that using an Arabic acronym that contains the words "Islamic State" really conveys that more clearly than an English acronym that contains the same words.

Also, the reality on the ground is that ISIS is an organized group of people who control a large swath of contiguous territory and rule over people in that territory to the exclusion of any other sovereign, which pretty much satisfies the definition of "state" no matter what you choose to call it.  I'm generally against propaganda that crosses over the line of being counterfactual.

And, while ISIS may be beyond manners, deliberately choosing an identifier for someone or something because the person or thing identified really dislikes that choice of language is juvenile and can complicate future diplomacy which will probably be necessary in some form or another.

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