In order to understand the thugs trying to control northern Syria and Iraq today we need to recognize that they themselves consider what they are doing Islamic. Yet trying to make sense of their self-understanding does not mean one has to grant them the recognition, especially religious credibility, they crave. The ongoing name-jumble in the media for trying to find a way to refer to this group indicates that these thugs are failing to establish the prestige they crave in their claim to speak for Islam and in their claim to be a new player in the international realm of states. Muslims and non-Muslims alike scoff at the claims that they represent either the religion of Islam or a state, to say nothing of a budding empire.
Here is a guide to this name-jumble.
ISIS: Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (often mistakenly called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). “Sham” refers to the Levant, a region larger than just the modern state of Syria. I admit to schadenfreude with the name ISIS, enjoying the irony that radical Islamists would found a “state” named after a pagan goddess from a polytheistic era.
ISIL: Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Same as above, with Levant being the English translation of the Arabic term Sham.
IS: Islamic State. This is the name these thugs prefer, but mainstream Muslims reject the claim that this is “Islamic” and not a soul in the international community recognizes this as a “state”. I think National Public Radio has been wise to establish a policy of referring to this as “the so-called Islamic State”. Also the Associated Press has chosen well in calling them “the Islamic State group”; calling them a group cuts them down to size – they are just a group, no more. I await the day we can put “IS” in the past tense and call them “WAS”.
DAESH: This is the Roman script adaptation of the acronym from the Arabic name of ISIS. AP reports the fighters hate being reduced to an acronym and even have threatened those in the territory they control who use this acronym. In this we see a reminder of the totalitarian nature of their enterprise: they are obsessed with trying to control language in order to control thought. They feel they need to control language because they cannot win over hearts. This reminds me of my experience as an undergraduate at the Karl-Marx-University in Leipzig, in the former East Germany, where I studied in 1986-1987 during my sophomore year abroad from Stanford. I chose to enroll in the core Marxism-Leninism curriculum, a six-semester core required of degree-seeking students. Some of the students, the habitually rebellious Polish students and me among them, referred to these classes as “M-L,” since after all the German phrase “Marxismus-Leninismus” is a bit of a mouthful. Yet some of the students who were loyalists to this ideology took offense at this and considered our use of the acronym “M-L” an insult. They wanted to drill into our heads that this was about Marx and Lenin by constant repetition of these names. But when living in a dictatorship one savors every moment of rebellion possible, no matter how small it might seem. We stuck with M-L. I tip my hat to those reducing these thugs to the acronym Daesh.
Caliphate: Those controlling this territory across Syria and Iraq have declared that they have created an, or perhaps the, Islamic Caliphate, or what Sister Maureen Fiedler, SL, in her informative interview about the significance of this has dubbed “Caliphate Fantasy.”
Caliphake: A clever friend of mine suggested the best name I have seen yet, namely a riff on the term caliphate combining it with fake: call them a Caliphake. Or for a double-jab call them the Daesh Caliphake.