Da-ish or Islamic State—much ado about nothing
22 Sep 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Alice Bartlett.

I really can’t agree with John Blaxland’s view regarding what term we should use for Islamic State, for two reasons; it doesn’t really matter what term you use, and the very people that John advocates should use the term Da‘ish rarely if ever pronounce it properly, thereby losing any effect that may accrue from its use. I refer to it as Islamic State or IS because that’s what they call themselves. I used to call them ISIS when that’s the term they used. I do quite like the BBC’s approach of using ‘so-called Islamic State’ which has a bit of the ‘bob each way’ about it but is both accurate and condescending at the same time.

There’s no standard way of referring to the group within the region (my interlocutors variously use IS, ISIS, ISIL, Da‘ish or sometimes dawla (state)). So thinking that somehow using a term that few English-speaking people can pronounce correctly will delegitimise the whole foundational narrative of Islamic State is a bit silly. Whether it’s a middle-aged Anglo academic or politician who mangles the Arabic word Da‘ish, if any fighters or would-be fighters are even aware of the linguistic bombs being thrown at them in an effort to diss their brand name, they’re more likely to double over in paroxysms of laughter on hearing the pronunciation than be dissuaded from joining Islamic State.

That alone should be enough to dissuade putative linguistic commandos from changing their naming conventions, but it is worth knocking over a few more of the other information operations shibboleths brought out in the article.

First, that Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state. The latter point is valid, the former not. The international community accords sovereignty, and hasn’t in the case of IS. But religious identity is a much more contested issue. The Catholic Church can tell you who is or isn’t ‘of the faith’ because they control the entry (baptism) and exit (excommunication) functions. But with no centralised system of control, the concept of who is Islamic or not is, and always has been, contested. The current spat in which the Iranians called the Saudis ‘faithless’ and the Saudis claimed the Iranians were ‘not Muslims’ shows how contested the term ‘Muslim’ can be even at the international level. Islamic State consider themselves the very epitome of Muslims, while the vast majority of Muslims consider them anything but. Islamic State is an abhorrent, intolerant form of Islam but it’s a form of Islam nonetheless. Claiming it’s not Islamic obviates the need to address the religious aspect to the phenomenon, which is central to defeating not only it, but other jihadist groups.

It’s also contradictory to argue that one shouldn’t refer to ‘Islamic State’ because it advocates violence in the name of Islam and hence goes against the peaceful nature of the religion when we readily talk about Hizbullah (party of God) or Hamas (acronym of Islamic Resistance Movement) or Palestinian Islamic Jihad for instance. But if we want to confine our discussion to contemporary events in Syria, then why don’t we seek to re-label other jihadi groups and coalitions who directly or indirectly refer to their Islamic identity while advocating and conducting violent actions? If Islamic State should be referred to as Da’ish because it isn’t truly Islamic, then how should we refer to Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) or Ahrar ash-Sham al-Islamiyya (who are members of the Higher Negotiating Committee)? One in, all in I say.

Second, that using the term Daesh delegitimises the cause in the eyes of potential English-speaking recruits and may deter young and impressionable people from joining. Ummm, I don’t think so. My experience of the attraction of IS to Australian foreign fighters has never involved any consideration of what the PM or any government minister said. The appeal stems from what their mentor, relative or facilitator said, or from multiple days’ worth of jihadist video viewing. What middle-aged politicians call the group has no impact.

Third, that fighters are lured by Daesh’s (sic) sexually-charged fantasies. Sex sells papers, and ‘jihadi brides’ are grist to the media mill. But the social media put out by IS is largely about fighting and battlefield victory, with some Islamic governance thrown in. Recruits are lured by a desire to protect Muslims from their ‘oppressors’ (the standard phraseology of jihadis) or as an expression of a triumphant religious identity to fill some void in their hitherto unremarkable lives. Some telephone intercepts may refer to access to women but there’s no evidence that supports the ‘sex drives jihad’ thesis.

Fourth, its use clearly rattles the Daesh leadership. Really? Its senior leadership is being decimated by airstrikes, and the group has lost its last border crossing into Turkey as well as Ramadi, Manbij and Palmyra so far this year, along with significant amounts of funding. How middle-aged white people refer to them is the least of their worries. And the only reference to Islamic State threatening to cut out people’s tongues for using the term came from an Associated Press article two years ago that cited anonymous sources in Mosul who claimed that IS fighters made this threat to them—hardly indicative that the term’s usage rattles Islamic State’s leadership.

I do, however agree with John that some may consider the issue a moot point and not worth pursuing.

Acknowledgment: John and I have known each other for more than 30 years.