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Words Have Meaning
Punning ISIS to Death

The terrorist group now commonly known as “ISIS” should instead be called “Daesh”, according to the Boston Globe, and perhaps France. Zeba Khan explains:

The militants who are killing civilians, raping and forcing captured women into sexual slavery, and beheading foreigners in Iraq and Syria are known by several names: the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS; the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL; and, more recently, the Islamic State, or IS. French officials recently declared that that country would stop using any of those names and instead refer to the group as “Daesh.”

The Obama administration should switch to this nomenclature, too, because how we talk about this group is central to defeating them. […]

The term “Daesh” is strategically a better choice because it is still accurate in that it spells out the acronym of the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. Yet, at the same time, “Daesh” can also be understood as a play on words — and an insult. Depending on how it is conjugated in Arabic, it can mean anything from “to trample down and crush” to “a bigot who imposes his view on others.” Already, the group has reportedly threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone who uses the term.

The article veers between the wrong and the wrongheaded. Even after 13 years of Western engagement in the Middle East, opinion writers for a major American newspaper still have no interest in the Arabic language—even when writing about the Arabic language.

“Daesh” is an acronym, and its roots (dal, ayn, shin) have no meaning in Arabic whatsoever. The expression for “to trample down and crush” is “da’s”. There is also the word “dahis”, meaning a felon.

These words sound similar but are quite different, and they have nothing whatsoever to do with conjugation for “Daesh.” Yet the Globe interprets the word “Daeshi” as “a bigot who imposes his view on others.”

But aside from the linguistic points (on which the author is clearly misinformed), what about the author’s argument that using this new name could help defeat ISIS? She concedes that “changing what the United States calls this band of militants is not going to make them go away.” But she insists that the United States must defeat ISIS intellectually and in the twitter-sphere in order to secure victory. In the abstract of trying to slow the torrent of Western recruits to ISIS, perhaps there is value in this approach. But if we’re serious about degrading and destroying ISIS, we’ll need more than puns and wordplay.

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  • jeburke

    It does matter what it’s called but daesh doesn’t come into it. ISIS IS al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) operating under a new and grander name. Calling it al Qaeda would actually be more informative and perhaps make it less appealing to young Muslims, hither and yon. Certainly, blindly adopting “Islamic State” pointlessly gives them a propaganda edge. Al Qaeda in Iraq first rolled out the Islamic State ploy in 2006 when it forged the so-called “Islamic State in Iraq, which was, in effect, an AQI front, encompassing a half dozen other groups but clearly led and dominated by AQI. Note that then as now, al Qaeda was proclaiming a “state,” headed by an emir. What happened since is that AQI/ISI was largely defeated, its remnants went underground only to gain new life across the border where the jihad against Assad gave it space, time and resources to regenerate, whereupon it moved back into Iraq.

    Let’s just tell the truth and call them al Qaeda.

    • Corlyss

      Batchelor has said for the last 13 years that we can’t name the enemy, and if we can’t name the enemy, we can’t defeat it.

    • B-Sabre

      But…but…the President said Al Qaeda was decimated and on the run!!

  • Corlyss

    “The Boston Globe . . . unfortunately wrong in both facts and views.”

    News flash . . .

  • Thirdsyphon

    Propaganda isn’t the primary instrument of war, but it is one of them. In the right hands, mockery and humor can be the kiss of death, especially for groups that thrive on fear. This particular effort might not have been well-crafted, and it might not work; but similar tactics, used properly, almost certainly can.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Call evil by its name, Islamists.

  • FriendlyGoat

    It should be called ISIL, pronounced as “issul” (like would rhyme with “missile”).

    The reasons are:

    There is no long “I” sound in the real name and no reason to put one there when pronouncing an acronym as a word.

    The sound symbolism of reminding everyone of Islam whenever “issul” is spoken is priceless. (Yes, our minds do respond to sounds and repetitions.)

  • Somebody

    I saw it claimed that some people in the Middle East are calling ISIS the orcs (as in Lord of the Rings). I don’t know whether it is true …

  • Bruce

    Silliness like this will not work. But remember, it’s the good intentions that matter most. (sarc)

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