Why Islamic State has so many names

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IOL pic aug13 Mideast Islamic State2 Associated Press Fighters from the Islamic State group march in Raqqa, Syria. File picture: AP

Washington - The Guardian reports that an influential Egyptian group has requested that Western observers make a crucial nomenclature change. Egypt's Dar al-Ifta, which the Guardian describes as “a wing of the Egyptian justice ministry... (and) a source of religious authority both inside and outside Egypt”, says that it's not appropriate to refer to the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” that's currently fighting in Iraq and Syria. Instead, according to Dar al-Ifta, we should call them “al-Qaeda separatists in Iraq and Syria”, or alternately QSIS. You can learn more by following the group's “Call it QS not IS” social media campaign.

It makes a lot of sense that Dar al-Ifta doesn't want the generic term “Islamic State” applied to a terrorist group. But I don't really see “QSIS” gaining traction given that governments and the media still haven't reached a consensus about which of the group's (at least) four previous names to use.

Slate's style is to refer to the group as ISIS, for the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”. This is as much for the sake of consistency as anything else: It's what we were calling them before they became a household name in the United States. During its initial rise, the group was often referred to in the US media simply as “al-Qaeda” or “al-Qaeda-linked”, though that hasn't been accurate since at least February.

According to Poynter, The New York Times, LA Times, ABC News, CBS News and NBC News all use “ISIS”. However, the US government, including President Barack Obama, the Pentagon, and the State Department, uses “ISIL”, for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The group's full Arabic name until recently was Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham - the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham - but there’s some confusion over what exactly “al-Sham” refers to. It's a regional term for Syria, or “Greater Syria”, that given the group's territorial ambitions, could potentially refer to the entire Levant region, including Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Lebanon.

Then, in June, the group declared a caliphate and rebranded itself as simply the “Islamic State”, reflecting more global ambitions. This presented a dilemma to news organisations. The Associated Press, which had been using ISIL, switched to Islamic State, as did The Washington Post, which had been using ISIS. Reuters seems to use ISIS and Islamic State interchangeably.

Among people in the region, including senior government officials, the group is often referred to as Da'ash, its Arabic acronym. This name is usually used by the group's opponents and, according to some reports, saying it can be punishable by 80 lashes in ISIS-controlled areas.

Terrorist groups think about branding as much as any other type of organisation. Documents seized from Osama bin Laden's compound show that he considered changing the name of his network from the generic-sounding al-Qaeda (“the base”). The new names he pondered included the Monotheism and Jihad Group, the Monotheism and Defending Islam Group, the Restoration of the Caliphate Group, and the Muslim Unity Group. None of these stuck.

Often, terrorist organisations don't get to decide what they're called. “Boko Haram” started as a local nickname for a group whose full name translates as “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad”. Boko Haram also doesn't exactly mean “Western education is a sin”, as it's usually translated. According to scholars of the Hausa language, “boko” can also mean “fraud” or “inauthenticity”.

For ISIS and others, this much is clear: It's not easy to control the message when the people you've sworn to kill are going to be the ones delivering it.

* Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine. The views expressed here are his own.

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