Cairo – The Islamic State’s gruesome rampage across the Middle East has united the world in horror but left it divided over how to refer to the extremist group, with observers adopting different acronyms based on their translation of an archaic geographical term and the extent to which they want to needle the extremists.
The Associated Press refers to the Sunni militant group as the Islamic State group — to distinguish it from an internationally recognized state — or IS for short, usually as an adjective before the words group, organization or extremists. Here’s a brief explanation of the militant group’s various names:
ISIS OR ISIL?
The group traces its roots back to Al-Qaida in Iraq, which declared an Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006. The name never really caught on, however, because the militants were never able to seize and hold significant territory. That began to change when the group expanded into neighboring Syria, exploiting the chaos of its civil war.
In 2013, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, renamed it the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, signaling its emergence as a transnational force while sowing the first seeds of confusion over what to call it. Al-Sham is an archaic word for a vaguely defined territory that includes what is now Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.
It is most often translated as either Syria — in the sense of a greater Syria that no longer exists — or as the Levant, the closest English term for the territory it describes. In English, the group’s name was translated variously as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also ISIS), or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the term usually used by the U.S. government and various U.N. agencies.
THE DEROGATORY “DAESH”
Mainly in the Middle East but increasingly beyond, those opposed to the group turned the Arabic acronym corresponding to ISIS into a single word — Daesh — a nonsensical word in Arabic that is insulting to the group because it diminishes its claim to have revived the Islamic caliphate. IS’ opponents, including public officials like French President Francois Hollande and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, have used the term to mock, condemn or diminish the group. Dawaesh, a plural form of the word that sounds even sillier in Arabic, is widely used in the Middle East.
IS itself bans the use of the term Daesh in areas it controls. But Arabic speakers have found other ways to put down the group. After the IS group’s bitter falling out with al-Qaida in 2013, al-Qaida supporters began referring to it as “al-Baghdadi’s group,” emphasizing their view of him as a renegade. Syrians living under IS rule often refer to it as “al-tanzeem,” Arabic for “the organization.”
CALL US THE CALIPHATE
When the IS group seized vast parts of northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014, it declared a caliphate in the territories under its control and dropped Iraq and al-Sham from its name.
Today the Sunni militant group refers to itself as the Islamic State, or simply The Caliphate. It refers to its affiliates in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere as “provinces.” For example, the branch in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is known as “Sinai Province.”