On December 2, British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament it was “important” that the expression ‘Daesh’ be used for ISIL, ISIS or IS. Soon afterward, a government Twitter handle called “UK Against ISIL” was changed to “UK Against Daesh”.
On November 14, French President Francois Hollande described the Paris attacks as “an act of war… by Daesh against France”. Hollande had referred to IS as Daesh earlier too, and in January 2015, the then Australian Premier Tony Abbott had declared Daesh would be his name for the terrorist group.
At the G20 Summit in Turkey just after the Paris attacks, President Barack Obama referred to activities of Daesh. And there were reports this week of informal instructions to Russian journalists from the government in Moscow to use Daesh instead of ISIS or ISIL.
What is behind the different names, and what is the reason for the West’s preference for Daesh over ISIS, ISIL or Islamic State?
Where did ISIS, ISIL and IS come from?
The oldest of the jihadists who ultimately came together under the flag of the Islamic State had started out as the Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, established by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999. In 2004, al-Zarqawi took an oath of loyalty to Osama bin Laden, and his organisation became the Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, or al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006, but AQI continued to hold significant territory in Iraq. It began to call itself ‘Islamic State in Iraq’ and, after taking parts of Syria in 2013, the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham’, or ISIS. Since al-Sham, the area around the eastern Mediterranean Sea (including Syria) is translated in English as “the Levant”, ISIS became ‘Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’, or ISIL. In June 2014, the leader of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the formation of the global Islamic “Caliphate”, with him as “Caliph”. ISIS/ISIL thus dropped the geographical connotations to its name, and became just the ‘Islamic State’, or IS.
And what is the origin of Daesh?
Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is, in Arabic, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham, which shortens into ‘DAIISH’. In English, it has come to be written ‘Daesh’.
So, why is Daesh preferred over IS?
It is essentially political and ideological. Governments have noted that calling the terrorists ‘Islamic State’ confers legitimacy upon them — acknowledges their claim to being the “caliphate” and thus, the supreme authority all Muslims should bow to. This not only raises their stature, it also insults the mass of Muslims worldwide who consider the IS no more than murderers and terrorists. Also, the claim of being the “Islamic State” is at the core of the IS’s propaganda, and its primary recruitment strategy. Arab governments have, in fact, been using Daesh for quite some time now.
Also, the IS itself hates the name Daesh — not just because it downgrades its claim to being the “Caliphate”, but also because “Daesh” sounds similar to the Arabic word “dahes”, which is translated as “someone who sows discord”. This, to Daesh, is insulting — and it has banned its use in its territories. Which is, of course, an excellent reason for Western governments at war with the Daesh to insist on calling it precisely that.
So, should IS be called Daesh then?
To many news organisations, ‘Islamic State’ is what the group calls itself and sees itself as — and it is for that reason accurate to call it Islamic State, without joining the debate on political legitimacy. There is also a practical reason — ‘Daesh’ is simply not as popular or recognisable a name as ISIS or ISIL, especially among non-Arabic speakers. Google Trends data, quoted by publications such as Vox, show ‘Daesh’ was virtually at zero from December 2014 until the end of October 2015, registered a presence only after the attacks in Paris, and is now back to near zero. ISIL was better, but only marginally. ISIS was the best known by far, 10 times more popular than Daesh even during the week of the latter’s peak. That said, ISIS, ISIL and Daesh can probably be used interchangeably.