There is not yet a definitive name for the main militant group drawing all of our attention in the Mid-east. The lack of an acceptable, universal label here is much worse than the petty disagreements over the spelling of “Qaddafi” or “al Qaeda” (here, The New York Times preferences) which troubled us somewhat in years past. How can we mount a serious campaign against an enemy if we don’t even know what to call it.
Most of the media, including The New York Times, and all of the candidates on both sides, usually say “ISIS,” short for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” or perhaps “Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham,” where “al Sham” refers to Damascus, the capitol and surrounding regions of Syria. While descriptive, there is no historical significance to the term ISIS. One feature in support of the term is that it appears generally accepted in all major publications to write the abbreviation without periods.
President Obama avoids the term “Islamic Terrorists,” for good reason, preferring the more generic term “radical jihadist” when he wants a generic reference that might apply throughout Islam. But that term is too broad to refer to the particular militant group battling for control in Syria. Then, Obama uses “ISIL,” short for “Islamic State of Iraq and The Levant.” “The Levant” is a historic or traditional name that originally referred to the entire belt of countries on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, from Greece to Egypt. To a minority of academic declarants, “The Levant” is used to describe the French mandate over Syria and Lebanon. The French adaptation apparently fostered the use of the term in today’s circumstances, although it is relevant only to Syria and not Lebanon.
While the term ISIL has some history and tradition to support its use, it includes unacceptable inconsistencies which are inaccurate and misleading in today’s setting. Also, the term ISIL now brings an immediate political reaction depending upon whether one favors or opposes Obama’s policies.
Secretary Kerry, and some others, have begun referring the militant jihadist group as “al Daesh,” an acronym from the true Arabic name ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī 'l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām, which is largely unpronounceable to the Western tongue. Abu al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph, and his followers accept the full name, but reportedly do not like the shortened acronym. Abu al Baghdadi calls his domain the “Islamic State,” or IS, a term or abbreviation that none of the Western allies have adopted.
While I personally prefer the historical panache of ISIL, even though not geographically accurate, I would lean towards “al Daesh” if it picks up steam and becomes generally accepted. At the present time, this is not happening, for the term, whenever used, continues to draw blank stares.
All this leaves me with The Old Gray Lady, and her unswerving insistence on ISIS with no periods. But then, all said, this is pretty good company.