Lost: What’s in a Name?

Since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced that they have shortened their name to simply “the Islamic State,” Western media have had difficulty knowing what to call them, especially because they are also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  But this name-change is not simply an attempt at re-branding: the terrorist group also prohibits anyone under their governance from calling them by the common Arabic abbreviation Da’ash (داعش, for الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام).  The penalty for using the proscribed, but common colloquial, acronym is 80 lashes.  What’s going on here?

It is not that ISIS wishes to punish anyone who hasn’t kept up on the news.  The difference between ISIS and ISIL is only in English translation: two different ways of translating the last element of their old name, al-Sham.  Al-Sham is an old-fashioned Arabic way of referring to the region of Greater Syria, which included everything from the Euphrates to the border of Egypt, thus the modern states of Syria (without the northeastern corner), the lower thumb of Turkey around ancient Antioch, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine.  The contemporary Syrian Arab Republic prefers to term itself by an Arabic transcription of the Greek name “Syria”: سوريا or سورية.  So some English speakers prefer to translate al-Sham as “Syria,” and risk confusion with the contemporary state which has different borders, while others prefer the older “Levant.”  The distinction between these two names doesn’t matter much to ISIS; what matters is that they are laying claim not only to the Syrian Arab Republic, but also to the entire Fertile Crescent.

Except that that field of activity is now too specific.  Now that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared himself caliph, he is calling upon all Muslims everywhere to join his jihad and create a new Muslim empire to conquer the world.  Such universalist claims are not well served by being only the Islamic State which is located in Iraq and Syria, because then presumably there are other Islamic states which have a claim upon the Muslims in other regions.  But claiming to be the “Islamic State,” without any qualification or specification, implies that there are no other Islamic states anywhere else which can command a Muslim’s loyalty.  Since one of the old rules of Islam, rarely observed but occasionally cited, is that Muslims should never live in an area under non-Muslim rule, this new claim to be the one and only Islamic State is also a recruitment tactic.  That is why ISIS wishes to punish anyone who uses their old name, which implicitly limits them to a particular scope and implies there is room for competitors.

But that is also why the Western media should continue to call them ISIS, for that is a more accurate description of what they are.  They are not a universal Islamic empire, however much they hope to become one.  They are not the only Islamic state which believes it is governed on the principles of the Islamic religion; so are Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Mauritania.  ISIS disregards their competition by invalidating the varieties of Islam practiced by those governments, or regarding them as corrupt through treaties with the infidels such as United States.  But the Islamic world has not been politically unified since 750, when the Abbasid family overthrew the Umayyad caliphate and ruled most of, but not all, their predecessors’ empire; a surviving Umayyad, ‘Abd al-Rahman, set himself up as ruler of the Maghrib, which was never again under eastern Mediterranean rule until, nominally, under the Ottomans, by which time Persia was irretrievably separated from Arab or Turkish rule.  Muslims are simply in two many parts of the world, and belong to too many varieties of Islam and too many opinions regarding secularism vs. religion, for any group to successfully establish a universal Islamic empire.  In general, journalists courteously prefer to label groups by what they wish to be called, but in this case, for Western media to label ISIS “the Islamic State” is to capitulate rhetorically to their wildest dreams of conquest.

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