Language Can Be Powerful

Perception matters. We should choose our words carefully
I noticed that BBC News always adds the qualifier “so-called” when describing the Islamic State. It’s a usage I find clumsy, so I decided to investigate why the BBC employs it. What I discovered was that, back in June 2015, a large number of British MPs from all the major parties accused the BBC of legitimizing the terrorist group by calling it “the Islamic State.” Even Prime Minister David Cameron entered the fray: “I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State. What it is, is an appalling, barbarous regime. … It’s a perversion of the religion of Islam and many Muslims listening to this program [on BBC Radio 4] will recoil every time they hear the words Islamic State.” Others argued that giving it the designation “state” confers a legitimacy that the self-styled caliphate has failed to earn from any country in the world.

Of course there are other designations for this terrorist group, such as ISIS and ISIL, the latter being the preferred term of President Obama. The latter acronym comes from Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shaam. Al-Shaam translates roughly as the Levant, also known as Greater Syria. If you translate al-Shaam as the Levant you get ISIL; if you translate it as Syria or just Shaam you get ISIS.

So as you can see there is no consensus on what to call the group. While I understand the reluctance of people who feel that the words “Islamic” or “state” lend legitimacy to a terrorist organization, I find adding the qualifier “so-called” to be somewhat silly. After all, this qualifier has not been generally added to other similar organizations. I’ve never  heard Hezbollah (Party of Allah) referred to as the “so-called Hezbollah” because it doesn’t represent Muslim values or the IRA referred to as the “so-called Irish Republican Army” because it didn’t really qualify as an army. One could equally argue that, because the leadership of the former Soviet Union didn’t adhere to Communist principles, it should be dubbed as having a “so-called Communist” government. An opponent to the former East German regime, meanwhile, could have suggested that the government be labelled the “so-called Democratic Republic.” I also remember former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin referring to the “so-called PLO” because he couldn’t bring himself to suggest it was a liberation movement even in its acronymic form. However, to my recollection, few media outlets conformed to this “so-called” modifier.

Thankfully, there is a simple solution to this naming conundrum. In 2013, Syrian Khaled al-Haj Salih coined the term Daesh (usually pronounced Dash or Da-ish). It is a transliteration of the Arabic acronym and is formed of the same words that make up ISIS in English, “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” and is rendered in Arabic as al-dawla-al-islamiya fi-al-Iraq wa-ash-shaam. But Daesh also sounds in Arabic very similar to the word daes that means “someone or something that crushes or tramples.” This definition is why the terrorist organization detests the name.

In a February 2015 article in Freeword entitled “Decoding Daesh: Why is the new name for ISIS so hard to understand?” Arab translator Alice Guthrie says that the term is despised because the terrorist group “hears it as a challenge to their legitimacy: a dismissal of their aspirations to define Islamic practice to be ‘a state for all Muslims’ and — crucially — as a refusal to acknowledge and address them as such.”

Guthrie adds that the name Daesh “lends itself well to satire, and for the arabophones trying to resist Daesh, humour and satire are essential weapons in their nightmarish struggle.” In Guthrie’s article, al-Haj Salih asks, “If an organisation wants to call itself ‘the light,’ but in fact are ‘the darkness,’ would you comply and call them ‘the light’?” Al-Haj Salih adds that Daesh is a fictitious name for the nonsensical fictional concept proposed by the terrorist organization and thus serves the purpose of discrediting it.

As of December 2015, UK government ministers started referring to the militant group as Daesh, but unfortunately the BBC has not followed suit. A BBC story in July of this year referred to the perpetrators of the siege and murder in Bangladesh as supporters of the “so-called Islamic State.” For me, a qualifier such as “so-called” should be reserved for something morally reprehensible such as honour killings. Although the name Daesh is widely used in the Arab world and has gained great currency in Europe, it is not often employed in Canada or the United States. As far as I am aware, the only major North American political figure who employs the word is US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Language can be a powerful weapon of war. It’s time for the anglophone world to join the coalition using the term Daesh. Let’s echo Voltaire and add words to the arsenal when combatting terrorists.

Howard Richler’s Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit was published in May by Ronsdale Press.