Editor’s Note: Zeba Khan is a writer focused on how Islam intersects with race, politics, and identity. Follow her @zebakhan. The views expressed are her own.
Zeba Khan: The word "Daesh" actively undercuts the power these militants wish to convey to native speakers
Given what's at stake, there's no reason not to refer to the group as Daesh, she says
Last week, President Barack Obama held a town hall at which he was asked why he doesn’t use the term “Islamic” terrorism. The president’s explanation was similar to the one he has given in the past – groups like ISIS “have perverted and distorted and tried to claim the mantle of Islam,” he explained. As commander-in-chief he does not “want to validate what they do” and potentially alienate Muslim allies in the fight against them.
The president is right. Unfortunately, his solution isn’t much better.
Although most of the U.S. media refer to the terrorist group as ISIS or their preferred name, the Islamic State, President Obama almost exclusively refers to them as ISIL, an acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The term Levant is a historical term for Greater Syria, which includes many of the countries on the eastern side of the Mediterranean.
Some conservatives have suggested that Obama’s insistence on using the term ISIL is a strategy to avoid dealing with Syria. Donald Trump called it a tactic to “bother people.”
The problem is that whatever his motivation, the term ISIL still validates the terrorists’ claims in the exact way “Islamic” terrorism does.
So, what should President Obama call the group? The same thing most of our allies in the region – and increasingly around the world – call them: Daesh.
Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIL. It spells out word for word in Arabic what ISIL spells out in English. But the term Daesh doesn’t carry the same meaning in an Arabic-speaking context as ISIL does in an English-speaking context. In fact, it has the exact opposite effect than the terrorists want.
Acronyms are not common in Arabic as they are in English, so an Arabic acronym as a concept comes off as a weird invention – something that is made up and not real. The acronym can also be seen as a play on words given it is just one letter away from the Arabic word ‘daes’ meaning something or someone who crushes or tramples.
So where the idea behind the names ISIS, ISIL, and the Islamic State is to evoke power and authentic religious authority, Daesh as a name undermines those goals in the ears of native Arabic speakers. Muslim satirists in the region have taken advantage of that fact, and are using the term as part of subversive comedic critiques of the militants.
Daesh may technically just be the Arabic acronym for ISIL, but it is a name that actively undercuts the power these militants wish to convey to native speakers. And because each letter represents an Arabic word, it weakens the terrorists’ ability to convey the narrative they want to non-Arabic-speaking audiences as well.
The group is sensitive enough to this aspect of its usage that they’ve threatened to cut the tongues out of anyone who refers to them by Daesh. That alone should be reason enough for the Obama administration to make a complete switch, something I argued back in 2014.
But it’s not just the terrorists who understand the strategic value the name Daesh has for their enemies. Over the past several years, Daesh has become the preferred term of the global community and specifically of our partners in the fight against terror. The leadership of ally countries, including France, the UK, Australia and Turkey, have shifted primarily if not exclusively to using the term Daesh. Last year, Russia also made a complete switch throughout its government and media.
These countries followed the example of heads of state and media in the Middle East as well as non-state actors, such as the Iraqi Kurds, Assyrian Christians, and Syrian activists, one of whom created the acronym in 2013. Larger organizing bodies such as the Arab League also adopted the term.
True, Secretary of State John Kerry uses the term Daesh regularly, particularly when speaking to international audiences. Yet the administration continues to maintain an official policy of using ISIL. And just as the President remarked this past June that the term “radical Islam” serves no military strategy, neither do the names “ISIL,” “ISIS,” or “IS.”
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Some commentators believe that because it is an Arabic acronym, Daesh is too difficult or confusing for the American public to understand or say. Some have also suggested that because we’ve been using “ISIL” and “ISIS” for years, it’s too late to change how we talk about them.
But the American people deserve more credit than that. Americans understand the Pashto word “Taliban” and the Arabic word “al Qaeda”* – the U.S. government never felt the need to translate those into their English equivalents, “Students” and “The Base.”
And while there may be some confusion initially, if President Obama makes the decision to officially change how his administration talks about these terrorists and explains to the country why he’s doing so as part of our overall strategy, the country will follow.
Given what’s at stake, and the low cost of shifting our language, there’s no reason not to make this change – and plenty of reasons why we should.
As the President said in September 2014, our intention is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Daesh. That process should begin with denying them the right to choose their own name.
*This article has been updated to clarify that Taliban is a Pashto word.