Islamic State or Un-Islamic Non-State? A matter of semantics

Nigerian Nobel Laureate playwright and poet Wole Soyinka calls on international actors to not name the DAESH terror group as ‘Islamic State’ because this gives legitimacy to the group.

Photo by: Reuters (Archive)
Photo by: Reuters (Archive)

File photo shows DAESH terrorists during a military parade in Syria.

Updated Jun 9, 2016

The international war against DAESH has been continuing since the second half of 2014 when the US-led coalition started bombing areas controlled by the terror group in Syria and Iraq.

World powers and international media have always been in cooperation in their fight against DAESH. However, a unitary stance on how to name the group is yet to be agreed upon.

There are at least four alternative names and abbreviations used to label the group: Islamic State (IS), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), and DAESH.

If you ask the group itself, the world should call it “Islamic State” in recognition of the so-called caliphate it has declared.

Many international actors have followed suit, but others have a reasonable question on their mind:

Why is the term ‘Islamic State’ being used to define a group that is neither Islamic nor a state?

Nigerian Nobel Laureate playwright and poet Wole Soyinka is among these questioners.

Nigerian Literature Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka speaks during an interview with Reuters. (Reuters Archive)

Last month, during a forum held by the Human Rights Foundation, he criticised international actors for using the term ‘Islamic State’ to define the group.

“Those who live directly under the sword have no choice. They must call them by the name they choose for themselves. But what about the rest of us?” he asked.

The power of semantics should not be underestimated Soyinka said, because “language is part of the armory of human resistance.”

“Rejection of the self-ascribed goals of an enemy is a critical part of the defence mechanism of the assaulted. Whenever an unconscionable claim is denied, rejected, openly derided, it erodes the very base of the aggressor’s self-esteem.”

While the name that DAESH gives itself shows how it wants to be recognised, the name that we use to define the group shows how we perceive it, Soyinka says.

“We insist on respectfully referring to them as a state. Such proponents of spurious egalitarianism fail a crucial test of responsibility to truth and language. Yes, there’s freedom of expression, but there’s also freedom of choice of expression. And that does not cost much.”

Linguists say the words that we choose to define something eventually shape the way people think about it and it is obvious that this terrorist group's name plays a crucial role in its propaganda war.

Archive photo shows a DAESH terrorist. (Reuters)

So what should we call them?

In 2014, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon suggested the use of  “Un-Islamic Non-State” to define the group which he said does not speak for Islam, and certainly does not represent a state.

The term ‘DAESH’ has recently gained favour. It is an acronym of Dawlat al-Islamiyah f'al-Iraq wa al-Sham, which sounds similar to an Arabic word that means one who crushes something under their foot or one who shows discord.

Last year, the French government officially adopted ‘DAESH’, as did Turkey.

According to its house style, Turkey’s TRT World calls the group ‘DAESH.’

Archive photo shows British Prime Minister David Cameron during a speech. (Reuters Archive)

British Prime Minister David Cameron also announced that the government will be calling the group ‘DAESH.’

What is more, he criticised the BBC for using ‘Islamic State’ instead of ‘DAESH.’

“I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State because it’s not an Islamic state. What it is is an appalling, barbarous regime. It is a perversion of the religion of Islam and many Muslims listening to this programme will recoil every time they hear the words ‘Islamic State’.”

The BBC ignored Cameron’s call, but since then it has frequently prefixed reference to the group with the ‘so-called’ qualifier.

The Associated Press, whose style guide is used by many media outlets, follows a very similar policy. It suggests the term ‘Islamic State group’ which it says indicates that it is not a state itself, but the name of the group.

DAESH terrorists waving flags, travel in vehicles as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria’s northern Raqqa province, June 30, 2014. (Reuters Archive)

Some others believe that in any case they must be called as they name themselves.

Michael Slackman, the international managing editor for the New York Times, says they follow a pretty straightforward policy by going with the term ‘Islamic State.’

“The name is Islamic State,” he says.

“Certainly there are many Muslims and non-Muslims alike who find it offensive, but that’s their name. We use the name that individuals and organisations select for themselves and try to explain it” in context.

Rod Liddle, an author at the Spectator, agrees with Slackman. "The point is that they call themselves ‘Islamic State’: that is their name. You can cavil all you like, but that is generally the approach we have taken over the years in journalism: give something its proper name, not something we would prefer it to be called."

Some people say the name that we use to define the group doesn’t change anything but Soyinka disagrees with that.

The most powerful weapon we have against DAESH is the words that we use, and we should be selective in our language, he says.