The Media Should Abandon its Use of “ISIS” to Describe the Islamic State Terrorists

Enough with “ISIS” already! It’s time for US news writers, journalists, politicians, and pundits to stop using an ancient and venerable name to denote a bloodthirsty terrorist organization.

In full disclosure, I am the proud father of an accomplished woman whom my wife and I named Isis in honor of the goddess who was venerated in ancient Egypt and throughout the Roman Empire. She bore, and continues to bear, this name proudly.

The US media and political establishment, lazy and always in pursuit of sound bites to take the place of real information, has seized upon the acronym ISIS to represent “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” Some military and intelligence officials, and the President himself, prefer the acronym ISIL, for “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (a term probably lost on most people). Indeed the group currently calling itself al-Dawlah l-ʾIslāmiyyah (Islamic State) has gone through a number of name changes since its days as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” including al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fī al-ʻIrāq wa-al-Shām (the Islamic State of Iraq and [greater] Syria).

While US (and UK) sources vacillate between ISIS and ISIL, European sources have been consistent in their simplicity. A brief review of the European press is instructive. In French news sources it’s l’Etat islamique (EI); Spanish news sources use Estado Islámico (EI); in Germany it’s Islamischer Staat (IS); in Italy, Stato Islamico; and in Denmark, Islamisk Stat (IS).

It’s easy to see why the term “ISIS” is so popular with US media. It reduces a long name into a two-syllable word that can be easily used for attention-getting sensationalism and inspiring fear. The repetition of letters makes it easy spelling for headlines and TV news crawls. The two S’s provide a pleasing sibilance for news readers and talking heads who have to repeat it frequently. Also, the name Isis became part of our popular culture through two TV shows. In the mid-1970s “Isis” was a live-action show about an archeologist who used a magic amulet to transform into “Mighty Isis,” resembling the “Wonder Woman” motif. In the current FX-TV animated series “Archer,” ISIS (the International Secret Intelligence Service) is an absurdist spy shop populated by ridiculously improbable misfits. In each case “Isis” (or “ISIS”) is positive or funny, not reprehensible and fear-invoking.

But most importantly Isis is also a personal name, and a surprisingly common one at that, especially among women of color, for whom it represents a link to ancient Africa’s contribution to classical antiquity. Its association with a headline grabbing terrorist group is starting to cause problems for women with this name. And women are starting to fight back to reclaim their name. A young woman in Miami, Florida, named Isis Martinez has launched a petition drive called “Thousands of Women are Named Isis,” demanding that US media use the term ISIL to describe the Islamic State group. She also made a YouTube video in which she expressed her outrage and sadness about the growing scandalizing of her name.

I think that US media and politicians, including the President, should join most of the rest of the world and simply call the group Islamic State. People will get it. And like other women named for classical goddesses like Diana, Venus, Rhea, and Athena, women named Isis can, if asked, simply explain that their name goes back to the foundation of our culture.

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