Want to hurt the Islamic State? Call it something else

How politicians and media refer to the terrorist group may actually help in countering its destructive narratives

By: Amira Elghawaby
Toronto Star | February 23, 2016

Last June, UK Prime Minister David Cameron called on the country’s largest broadcaster to stop calling ISIS the “Islamic State” and to instead use the term ISIL (an acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

“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,” said Cameron in an interview on Radio 4. “It is a perversion of the religion of Islam and many Muslims listening to this program will recoil every time they hear the words Islamic State.”

A coterie of other politicians, including London’s mayor, went further, calling on the BBC to use “Daesh,” the acronym for the Arabic name of Al Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa’al Sham. That’s an older term the group used to go by, but which it reportedly despises and which, quite pointedly, has various nasty meanings in its plural form.

The BBC conceded only to refer to ISIS, as the “so-called” Islamic State or IS.

It’s a worthwhile debate because how politicians and media refer to the terrorist group may actually help in countering its destructive narratives.

“We should start by understanding that in a propaganda war language is crucial,” wrote former Scottish National Party Leader Alex Salmond last summer following an attack in Tunisia. “Any description of terrorists which confers on them the image that they are representing either a religion or a state must surely be wrong and an own goal of massive proportions.”

Washington Post columnist Amanda Bennett remarked in a piece last November: “How we name things is significant, because to name something is to define it, to own its meaning, and to persuade people to see it through the lens the namer wants. The title ISIS chooses for itself shows how it wants to be seen, while monikers that others use reflect how they want the group to be perceived — often two diametrically opposed positions.”

This aligns with what Canadian law enforcement agencies have long pointed out. “By referring to extremists as jihadis we effectively recognize their actions as being in the path of God and, therefore, legitimate,” reads a 2010 RCMP report titled “Words Make Worlds.” So accepting their self-styled narrative that they are fighters in the cause of Islam could actually help bolster their recruitment efforts.

Besides, such terminology winds up impacting the millions of Muslim citizens who are just as horrified by these terrorists as anyone. “Terms like ‘Islamic terrorism,’ ‘Islamist terrorism,’ ‘Jihadism’ and ‘Islamofascism’ succeed only in conflating terrorism with mainstream Islam, thereby casting all Muslims as terrorists or potential terrorists,” points out the RCMP report.

And this may actually help “Daesh” achieve its stated aim of driving a wedge between Western societies and their Muslim citizens. We already see an almost immediate spike in anti-Muslim attacks and incidents reported to police, the media, and to organizations like ours following any terrorist attack by any group which purports to have a link to Islam. Never mind the virulently anti-Muslim comments on chat boards and throughout social media that typically ensues in the wake of these types of events.

There are some media outlets like the Economist which have deliberately refused to follow the direction shown by politicians and leaders like Cameron, or U.S. President Barack Obama (ISIL), United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon (Un-Islamic Non-State), or the French government (Daesh). Here in Canada, most media outlets and politicians use Islamic State quite freely and interchangeably, though there are a few outliers including CBC’s Terry Milewski and journalists at Global News who occasionally add “so-called” to the title.

“I don’t think it matters,” argued Rachel Bryson, an IS researcher at the Quilliam Foundation in the UK in an interview with VICE. “It’s not that important if you use ISIL or Daesh or ISIS. It kind of is what it is … You can just add ‘so-called’ if that makes you feel more comfortable.”

That analysis misses the point. If the words we use could help defeat a hateful ideology and help protect innocent people from being targeted than it’s about much more than doing what’s comfortable. It’s about doing what’s right.

Amira Elghawaby is the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). Follow her on Twitter @AmiraElghawaby. A version of this article can also be found on iPolitics.ca