because names matter LET'S
CALL THE CALIPHATE WANNABES DAESH
Richler is a Montreal-area word nerd and author of these seven books on a
variety of language themes: Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes, Take My
Words, A Bawdy Language, Global Mother Tongue, Can I Have a Word With You?,
Strange Bedfellows and his most recent book Wordplay:Arranged
& Deranged Wit May 2016, Ronsdale Press, Vancouver).
Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman nor an empire. Voltaire
I had noticed that BBC News always adds the
qualifier ‘so-called’ when describing the Islamic State. As I find this
usage clumsy, I decided to investigate why the BBC employs it. I discovered
that back in June 2015 a large number of British Members of Parliament,
from all the major parties, accused the BBC of legitimizing the terrorist
group by calling it “the Islamic State.” Even Prime Minister David Cameron
entered the fray: “I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State. What
it is, is an appalling barbarous regime . . . It’s a perversion of the
religion of Islam and many Muslims listening to this programme (BBC Radio
4) will recoil every time they hear the words Islamic State.” Others argued
that giving it the designation ‘state’ also adds legitimacy because the
self-styled caliphate is no more than an organization that is not
recognized as a sovereign state by any country in the world.
Of course there are other designations for this
terrorist group such as ISIS and ISIL, the latter being the preferred term
of President Obama. This is explained by those trying to establish a
caliphate, calling themselves, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shaam. Al-Shaam
translates roughly as the Levant (the areas near the East coast of the
Mediterranean), also known as Greater Syria. If you translate al-Shaam as
the Levant you get ISIL, if you translate it as Syria or just Shaam you get
So as you can see there is no consensus on what
to call the group
and as a result there is much variance in designations.
While I understand the reluctance of people who feel that the words
‘Islamic’ or ‘state’ lend legitimacy to a terrorist organization, I find
adding the qualifier so-called to be somewhat silly. After all, this
qualifier has not been generally added to other similar organizations. I
don’t know if I ever heard Hezbollah (Party of Allah) referred to as the
“so-called Hezbollah” because it doesn’t represent Muslim values, or the
IRA referred to as the “so-called Irish Republican Army” because it didn’t
really qualify as an army. One could equally argue that because a leader of
the former Soviet Union didn’t adhere to Communist principles it should be
dubbed as having a “so-called Communist” government or an opponent to the
former East German regime could have suggested that the government be
labelled the “so-called Democratic Republic.” I remember when Menachem
Begin was Prime Minister of Israel (1977-1983), he always referred to the
“so-called PLO” because he couldn’t bring himself to suggest it was a
liberation movement even in its acronymic form. However, to my
recollection, few media outlets conformed to this ‘so-called’ modifier.
Thankfully, there is a simple solution to this
naming conundrum. In 2013, Syrian Khaled al-Haj Salih coined the term Daesh (usually
pronounced Dash or Da-ish). It is a transliteration of the Arabic acronym
and is formed of the same words that make up ISIS in English, Islamic State
in Iraq and Syria, and is rendered in Arabic as al-dawla-al-islamiya
fi-al-Iraq wa-ash-shaam. But Daesh also sounds in
Arabic very similar to the word daes that means ‘someone or something that
crushes or tramples.’ This definition is why the terrorist organization
detests the name. In an article in Freeword, February 2015
entitled Decoding Daesh: Why is the new name for ISIS so hard to
understand?, Arab translator Alice Guthrie says that the term is despised
because they (the terrorist group) hear it as a challenge to their
legitimacy: a dismissal of their aspirations to define Islamic practice to
be “a state for all Muslims’ and – crucially – as a refusal to acknowledge
and address them as such.” Guthrie adds that the name Daesh “lends
itself well to satire, and for the arabophones trying to resist Daesh,
humour and satire are essential weapons in their nightmarish struggle.” In
Guthrie’s article, al-Haj Salih asks “If an organization wants to call
itself ‘the light,’ but in fact are ‘the darkness,’ would you comply and
call them ‘the light’?” Al-Haj Salih adds that Daesh is a
fictitious name for the nonsensical fictional concept proposed by the
terrorist organization and thus serves the purpose of discrediting it.
As of December 2015, UK government ministers
started referring to the militant group as Daesh but
unfortunately the BBC has not followed suit. A BBC story in July of this
year referred to the perpetrators of the siege and murder in Bangladesh as
supporters of the “so-called Islamic State.” For me, a qualifier such as
“so-called” should be reserved for something morally reprehensible such as
honour killings. Although the name Daesh is widely used in
the Arab world and has gained great currency in Europe it is not often
employed in Canada or the United States. As far as I am aware, the only
major North American political figure who employs the word is US Secretary
of State John Kerry.
As language can be a powerful weapon of war, it
is time for the anglophone world to join the coalition using the term Daesh.
Let’s echo Voltaire and add words to the arsenal when combatting
Howard Richler is a Canadian language columnist. He wrote the weekly Speaking of Language column in The Montreal Gazette from 1992 to 2006 and his Word Nerd column has appeared since 2006 in The Senior Times.
Howard also regularly writes for other newspapers and magazines, including Globe & Mail, and National Post, and the legal magazine Lexpert. He has appeared on countless radio and television shows, including All in a Weekend, Pamela Wallin Live and Richler Inc.
In between all this, he has written seven books
The Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes
Take My Words –A Wordaholic’s Guide to the English Language
A Bawdy Language – How a Second-Rate Language Slept Its Way to the Top
Global Mother Tongue – The Eight Flavours of English
Can I Have a Word With You?
Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.
His book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts was published by Ronsdale Press 2013 and his latest book Wordplay:Arranged and Deranged Wit was published by Ronsdale in April 2016.