CAIRO — The Islamic State’s rampage across the Middle East has left the world 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.
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 neighbouring 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, signalling 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.
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.” The word is nonsensical and doesn’t mean anything in Arabic but has a mocking tone and is insulting to IS because it diminishes its claim to have revived the Islamic caliphate. It is also close to the words “dahesh” and “da’es,” meaning “one who tramples,” making it fodder for puns. The IS group’s opponents, including public officials like French President Francois Hollande and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, have used to 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 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.”