Perhaps fittingly, given the international failure to agree on a strategy for fighting the fundamentalist insurgent group that now controls a wide swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria, President Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry aren’t on the same page about what to call it.
Part of the problem is that the group, which we at Slate call ISIS, keeps changing its own name. What was once al-Qaida in Iraq, became the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), then expanded into Syria becoming ISIS or ISIL (more on that in a second), then declared itself a global caliphate, dropping the geographic distinctions to become just Islamic State.
Some media outlets, including the New York Times and the Associated Press, have adopted the group’s preferred name, Islamic State or IS. Others, including Slate, have stuck with ISIS, which can stand for either “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” or “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham”— an Arabic term that translates to Greater Syria. ISIL proponents maintain that al-Sham is more accurately translated as “the Levant,” a region that could be interpreted as including Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and Lebanon, reflecting the group’s territorial ambitions.
President Obama and his administration (though not all members of Congress) have consistently used ISIL, including in the recent State of the Union address. NBC’s Chuck Todd suggested recently that Obama may be using the “IL” because he wants to deemphasize Syria, since his administration has been reluctant to intervene there. Fox News, meanwhile, has suggested that the president is “tipping his hat” to the group by referring to the larger geographical area. Go ahead, guys, it’s all yours. A more realistic explanation is that Obama wants to emphasize that the scope of the threat posed by the group extends beyond Syria’s borders. It’s also possible that someone simply decided ISIL was more accurate months ago and they’ve stuck with it for the sake of consistency.
ISIS hates the nickname, which according to France 24 sounds like the Arabic word “Daes,” meaning “one who crushes something underfoot” as well as “Dahes,” which means “one who sows discord.” Using the name is reportedly punishable by 80 lashes in ISIS-controlled areas. Which is kind of ironic.
For English-speaking ISIS foes, “Daesh” also has the advantage of implying that the group is neither a state, nor Islamic. So it’s both sensitive and insensitive in the right ways.
Still, shouldn’t Obama and Kerry call this group they want to eradicate by the same name? Conventional wisdom on Kerry is that he’s a lone operator in the administration—according to the New York Times, White House officials jokingly compare him to Sandra Bullock in Gravity, somersaulting through space. The fact that the two can’t even agree on nomenclature doesn’t help that perception.
I’d guess Kerry probably made the switch since he speaks more frequently to Middle Eastern officials and audiences who know the term. It’s tempting to suggest that Obama stick it to the enemy by also switching to Daesh, but the vast majority of Americans would have no idea what he was talking about.