Name Change for ISIS

By Maeve Maddox

English speakers have yet to agree on a word, phrase or acronym to label the terrorist group making news for such atrocities as beheading noncombatants and butchering unarmed prisoners.

A few years ago, American journalists started referring to the group that was calling itself “Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham” as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), but this acronym has proved to be a poor choice; it suggests that the group’s focus is limited to Iraq and Syria.

The term al-Sham does not stand for Syria. The English translation of al-Sham is “the Levant.”

Levant came into English from French in the 15th century with the meaning “East,” (from French lever, “to rise.”) The region referred to was in the East. The sun rises in the east, ergo, levant (rising), present participle of lever.

The Levant is “the eastern part of the Mediterranean, with its islands and the countries adjoining.” According to one interpretation, the Levant is made up of Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and part of southern Turkey. Others claim that the Levant refers only to Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.

The Associated Press has rejected the continued use of ISIS, preferring ISIL (L for Levant) as a more accurate interpretation of al-Sham. John Daniszewski, AP vice president and senior managing editor for international news, says, “We believe this is the most accurate translation of the group’s name and reflects its aspirations to rule over a broad swath of the Middle East.”

Since June 2014, when the terrorist group named a “caliph” and dropped both Iraq and Levant from its name, ISIL has become less than accurate as a reflection of the group’s aspirations. Referring to themselves as “the Islamic State” reflects their self-image as a reincarnation of the medieval caliphate founded in the 7th century. The Umayyad caliphate (661-750) conquered lands from Arabia to Spain; their advance into Western Europe in 732 was turned back by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours.

The words caliph and caliphate derive from Arabic khilafa, “succession.” A caliph is seen as the successor of Muhammad. A caliphate is a sovereign state ruled by a caliph under Islamic law (sharia). The office of caliph combines the functions of king and priest.

British journalists seem to have decided on the initials IS as a short way of referring to the group without limiting its perceived goals to any particular region of the world. They use the term “Islamic State” for the first reference in an article and the capitalized initials IS in subsequent references.

It seems to me that either ISIL or IS is preferable to ISIS. As a student of mythology and comparative religion, I cringe every time I hear the murderous terrorists referred to by an acronym that sounds like the name of the benign mother goddess Isis. And I sympathize with women like Isis Martinez of Miami who sees people “recoil in disgust” when she introduces herself these days.

Postscript: I just heard an American reporter on NPR refer to the group as IS.

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13 Responses to “Name Change for ISIS”

  • Hazel

    In the UK, the BBC consistently calls it IS.

  • Karen Levy

    The article above about what a terrorist group wants to call themselves, I could care less. Write about something more relevant.

  • Najah Lightfoot

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I too have posted about this very thing on my Facebook page.
    Indeed as a Priestess of the Goddess, I too shudder whenever I hear the acronym “ISIS” used to describe a terrorist organization. Thank you for elaborating so elegantly as to why “IS” is a much better term. Also thank you for letting us know AP and the British Press have adopted the usage of “IS”. May the American Press follow as well.

  • Anne

    Thanks for the clarification. Very useful.

  • Heather

    What did you mean to say here? See below:

    “Others claim that the Levant refers only to Syria, Lebanon, and Syria.”

    Thanks,

  • Maeve

    Heather,
    I have submitted a correction request. It should be: “Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.”

  • Evelyn Howell

    I was unhappy to see a common punctuation error occur in Daily Writing Tips, which I hold to a higher standard than average Internet postings. In the attribution for the quote from the AP official, the modifying clause is not closed off with the second comma (see bracketed insert below):
    John Daniszewski, AP vice president and senior managing editor for international news[,] says, “We believe this is the most accurate translation of the group’s name and reflects its aspirations to rule over a broad swath of the Middle East.”
    Because I see this error all the time in business writing and Internet news posted by writers more experienced in blogging than in print journalism, I count on educated writers and editors to be more precise.

  • Chris

    Funny to hear you say this. A company that creates a Google Wallet alternative called Isis Wallet (shipped with Samsung devices) finds themselves having to rebrand.

  • Lisa L.

    I personally don’t think the world journalists should dignify the Whozits’ by referring to them
    as a recognized ‘ Islamic State ’ ..
    nor with derivatives from ‘Levant’ as in ‘ Rising from the East’ –
    nor should they be ever be honored with a name derived from ‘Caliphate’ – ie., the Kings and Priestly successors of Muhammad.
    Rather, they may be more appropriately referred to as the
    Evil Incarnate ( EI ) …since they choose unspeakable , horrific evil actions— horrors such as beheading , burying children and adults alive, selling women, public butchering of those who don’t subscribe to their beliefs, Raping and slaughtering, etc.
    L.L.

  • Lind Barr

    Since Isis a group of radical Right-Wing Separatist Terrorists, I think their should be called exactly that. International State of Islamic Extremists.
    Terrorism of any kind is extreme, and all nations have played this role at one time or another. The only exception with this league of terrorists is that the identity they are trying to create, threatens the peaceful existence of millions of law abiding moderate Moslems in the world.

  • venqax

    I agree a name change would be nice. Poor Isis doesn’t deserve the proximity, but is makes such a danged nice acronym. You can say it and everything without having to resort to spelling chicanery like CINLANT (LANT is supposed to mean Atlantic) or EKG. ISIL works a little– but how do you say it. Rhymes with whistle? Or first syllable like ice? Is there a way it could be SILI? Like in French, maybe. They say everything backwards. 🙂

  • venqax

    @Linda Barr: How are they “right wing”? The are not nationalists. They are pushing a trans-national ideology. Those are left-wing, not right wing, traits. They really don’t fit well on the Euro-American left-right spectrum.

  • Maeve

    Karen,
    As long as the group is stirring up trouble, it will be talked and written about. The post is about finding a term to call the group without promoting its agenda.

    Lisa,
    I agree. “So-called Islamic State,” perhaps. (SCIS?) Or maybe the Arabic acronym: DAESH. I’ve read that the group hates to be called that.

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