Why They Continue to Use the Term “ISIS” Political Correctness meets Foreign Policy, Money, and the Military

I continue to be annoyed by the use of the acronym ISIS in US media and political circles to describe the self-styled Islamic State organization that is currently at war in Syria and Iraq. I have previously stated the reasons for my objections to this term. But lately my attention has shifted to the reasons for the choice of politicians and, especially, media (across the political and ideological spectrum) to employ this designation.

A Difficult Mouthful?

I have to dismiss the idea that translating the name of the group from Arabic into English is too difficult. It’s already being done, just to relieve the monotony of repeating “ISIS” too often in the same story or when paraphrasing a statement by an official or a report in another media source.

The group calls itself al-Dawlah al-ʾIslāmiyah (Islamic State). But it has also called itself al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fī al-ʻIrāq wa-al-Shām (the Islamic State of Iraq and [greater] Syria). That’s a bit of a mouthful, but Arabic speakers generally use the acronym Daesh. (Acronyms aren’t new; they are a Semitic invention, dating back to Roman times, if not earlier.) I don’t believe that al-Dawlah al-ʾIslāmiyyah, or simply al-Dawlah is too tricky a tongue-twister for our politicians and journalists. After all, they’re able to pronounce the names of other terrorist organizations: Al-Quaeda (although there is some uncertainty as to whether it’s pronounced “Kay-da” or “Cai-da”); Al-Shabaab, the group fighting to control Somalia and other areas of eastern Africa; and, Boko Haram, the group that’s proving that Nigeria’s huge army is only good for terrorizing its unarmed civilian population.

The Acronym Problem

Furthermore, as the distinction between “ISIS” and “Daesh” indicates, an acronym that makes some sense in translation can make little or no sense in its original language. Let me offer an (admittedly made-up) example.

Suppose there was in Toulouse, France, an organization whose name in French was Archiv francais de Toulouse des Societés Secrètes Anciennes. In French, it might be abbreviated using the acronym AFTSSA, omitting the words meaning “of.” Our English translation would probably be “French Archive of Toulouse of Ancient Secret Societies.” Our unfortunate English anonym might well end up as FATASS.  How interesting it might be if scholarly papers throughout the English-speaking world were to make frequent reference to a French institution for esoteric scholarship known as FATASS. This, of course, would be the English version of the organization and its acronym. Other languages would have their own translations, hopefully with less scandalous acronyms.

Simple Terms for Simple Minds

That said, I think that there are other reasons why “ISIS” became the term of choice. They have to do in part with the simplicity of a somewhat familiar term. But more important is the intersection of diplomacy, international finance, and what some would call “political correctness (PC).”

ISIS falls off the tongue easily. The four letters look strong in print (and menacing if they represent an adversary whom we should fear). In the back of our minds we remember “Mighty Isis,” the DC comics and ‘70s TV heroine. More recently the name was attached to the secret spy agency on the animated series Archer (although the agency went out of business in response to negative publicity). And once adopted by the political classes, the name became the common term to refer to the Islamic State.

Political Correctness?

However, it has consistently been the policy of President Obama and his administration to use the term ISIL (“Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), pronounced the way it spells. This habit has persisted despite the use of the term ISIS by almost everyone outside of the administration. We should add that while the President refers when necessary to “ISIL” he never refers to the “Islamic State” or “Islamic State Group” or “Islamic State Organization.” Why?

He has been criticized mercilessly by conservative foes (and by some “liberals” as well), both in and out of government, for never using the term “Islamic terrorism” or even “jihadism.” Perhaps it reflects the President’s earnest desire to avoid a general condemnation of Islam and Muslims. After all, he is the only American President to have lived part of his life in a predominantly Muslim country. Or it may be as some critics, like Bill Maher, complain, an example of “liberals” bending over backward to be PC, avoiding the fact that most of the armed warfare directed largely against civilians on behalf of an ideology is being carried out by people claiming that their actions are guided by Islam.

And Then There’s International Politics

It is well worth mentioning, also, that the US shares many economic and military interests with Islamic countries, including those led by repressive regimes whose religious ideologies coincide closely with those of the jihadis. For example, Saudi Arabia is enmeshed with the US in a relationship that blends oil and weapons in pursuit of mutual stability. The US has military assets in many countries with large Muslim populations in the Middle East and Africa. It must tread softly in its comments about the Islamist character of the forces against whom it and its nominal allies are in conflict.

All this said, the US Administration, including the military, will continue to talk around the issue of Islamic militancy while the media and politicians – conservative and faux liberal – will continue to use the designation ISIS because its value as an emotional stimulus outweighs any benefit that might derive from using a more descriptively accurate term.


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