FOR the third time in as many decades America is leading a powerful coalition to war in the Middle East. On September 23rd the offensive expanded dramatically as coalition aircraft and missiles struck in Syria, widening the theatre beyond its initial arena in Iraq. Their target is a radical jihadist group that has grabbed headlines since June, when its black-clad gunmen burst beyond territory they had captured during Syria’s civil war and seized big chunks of Iraq, including the country’s second biggest city, Mosul. Alarm has grown as they have massacred hundreds of prisoners, sometimes with grisly televised beheadings, and hounded thousands of Christians and other minorities from their homes. Nearly everyone shares a desire to destroy this scourge, yet they cannot seem to agree on what to call it. The group has been variously dubbed ISIS, ISIL, IS, SIC and Da’ish. Why the alphabet soup?
Part of the trouble is that the group has evolved over time, changing its own name. It started as a small but viciously effective part of the Sunni resistance to America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq that called itself al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI. In 2007, following the death of its founder (and criticism from al-Qaeda for being too bloodthirsty), AQI rebranded itself the Islamic State in Iraq, or ISI. This group suffered setbacks on its home turf, but as Syria descended into civil war in 2011 it spotted an opportunity. By 2013 it had inserted itself into eastern Syria and adopted a new name to match, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Increasing the confusion, ISIS changed its name yet again in June this year, declaring itself the State of the Islamic Caliphate (SIC), a title that reflects its ambitions to rule over Muslims everywhere.
Translation presents another problem. In its next-to-most-recent incarnation, as ISIS, the group sought to challenge „colonialist“ borders by using an old Arab geographical term—al-Sham—that applies either to the Syrian capital, Damascus, or to the wider region of the Levant; hence the official American preference for calling it Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, rather than ISIS. The Arabic for this, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil ’Iraq wal-Sham, can be abbreviated to Da’ish, just as the Palestinian group Hamas (which means „Zeal“) is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, or Islamic Resistance Movement. Da’ish is the name that has widely stuck among Arabs, although the group’s own members call it simply the State, al-Dawla, for short, and threaten with lashes those who use Da’ish.
There is a long history of pinning unpleasant-sounding names on unpleasant people. Rather as the term Nazi caught on in English partly because of its resonance with words such as „nasty“, Da’ish rolls pleasurably off Arab tongues as a close cousin of words meaning to stomp, crush, smash into, or scrub. Picking up on this, France has officially adopted the term for government use, with its foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, explaining that Da’ish has the added advantage of not granting the group the dignity of being called a state. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, has cast similar aspersions, denouncing the group as a “Non-Islamic Non-State”. Rather than obediently adopting the acronym NINS, this newspaper has chosen for the time being to continue calling the group simply Islamic State (IS).
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A mosaic chart of Middle Eastern relationships. Summary: everyone hates Islamic State (September 2014)