What’s In a Name? Rethinking “Islamic State”

Islam Means Peace Rally by B.C. Lorio (CC BY-NC-ND)

Islam Means Peace Rally by B.C. Lorio (CC BY-NC-ND)

Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders—holy warriors in defense of Islam. That’s why ISIL presumes to declare itself the “Islamic State”.
—President Barack Obama
Never underestimate the power of a single word . . .
—Suzy Kassem
عليكم‎ السلام (As-salaam alaikum; “Peace be upon you”)
—Traditional Muslim greeting and farewell


New parents know words have power. They can spend ages debating the merits and pitfalls of different names, knowing a strong, inviting name can give their child an advantage while a funny one can invite ridicule. Politicians know words have power. Entire teams of speechwriters spend hours crafting what their bosses will say in public. Hitler knew words have power. He manipulated millions of people with propaganda campaigns that likened Jews to vermin, subtly dehumanizing them and making it easier to call for their “extermination”.

Because words are so powerful, out of respect for myself and others there are some that I don’t use. Like gypped, meaning shortchanged, which insults Roma, aka Gypsies, who are stereotyped as thieves. Rule of thumb, meaning guideline, may sound innocent enough, but it comes from an old English law that said a husband could beat his wife with a switch no thicker than his thumb. And you’ll never hear me use the word girl as an insult—the only insult there is the idea that there’s something wrong with girls that makes comparison to them insulting.

Then again, language is always evolving and there are changes I support as consciously as I reject others. For example, they is a nice ungendered alternative to he or she as a singular pronoun. It’s encouraging to hear newly wedded couples presented as husband and wife (or wife and wife or husband and husband)—words that focus on two people’s mutual relationship—instead of the more traditional man and wife, which introduces to the world one autonomous person and his appendage, wife. And have you noticed that the original Star Trek opening “where no man has gone before” has been changed to “where no one has gone before”?

It’s because words have power that the name of the so-called Islamic State begs closer scrutiny.

By comparison, Israel—the so-called Jewish State—is a homeland for all Jews. The so-called Islamic State, however, isn’t even an ideological home for all Muslims—just terrorists and those they would manipulate and exploit for their own irreligious ends. So Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others are right to avoid inflammatory phrases like Islamic extremists, because religion has little to do with it—just like the religion of serial killers has little to do with the murders they commit. Islam may be a point of rhetoric, a marketing ploy to lure followers, but the so-called Islamic State—which has gone through many names in its history—is no expression of religious faith, and calling it one is unjust to the millions of peace-loving Muslims we share the planet with.

So instead of ISIS, which stands for Islamic State of Iran and Syria (and defames an Egyptian goddess) or even ISIL, which stands for Islamic State of Iran and the Levant (meaning the Eastern Mediterranean region), I prefer the name Daesh (داعش‎), the acronym for al-dowla al-islāmiyah fii-il-i’rāq wa-ash-shām (“Islamic State of Iran and Greater Syria” in Arabic). Here’s why:

  1. As an acronym, Daesh doesn’t reference Islam directly in either English or Arabic, making it easier to separate terrorism from religion.
  2. While Daesh isn’t an Arabic word in it’s own right, it sounds similar to two Arabic words—daes, meaning “to stomp or crush underfoot” and dāhis, meaning “to sow discord”—which give it a negative connotation that’s pretty spot-on for a bunch of murderous, power-hungry thugs.
  3. “Islamic State” is an aspirational name—wishful thinking on the part of terrorists who hope to expand their domain to include all Muslims. The group loathes the name Daesh because it undermines their authority.
  4. Our Arab-speaking allies, opponents of the so-called Islamic State, call it Daesh as a means of resistance.

Words have great power. Language not only reflects, but influences our worldview. By any name, the Syria-based terrorists threaten peace and prosperity around the world. But we compound their damage, however unintentionally, by using their chosen name. So I encourage you to join me—and Secretary of State John Kerry, Prime Minister David Cameron, President François Hollande, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and millions of others—in using the name Daesh. By speaking more deliberately, we can change the conversation.



  1. I agree that the power of words can have powerful impact … on self concept, point of view, movements, group identity, etc. I had not heard the acronym Daesh, but it avoids the pitfalls of the names ISIS or ISIL It identifies the group without the misleading slur to all Muslims. How sad that certain expressions have been accepted into our language without closer scrutiny. Thank you for an insightful article. I have learned a number of things – one of which is the true meaning of ‘rule of thumb.’

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