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ISIS vs Daesh: More than mere words at stake

Last week, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius took the lead among Western countries in casting aside the ISIS acronym (short for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in favor of a label which the terrorist group itself detests: Daesh. The latter is also an acronym, derived from the long-form name of the group in Arabic: Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham.

As noted in a recent Toronto Star article, “Arab governments have long refrained from using Islamic State, instead referring to it by…Daesh…”. The piece goes on to observe that the terrorist group bristles at the use of that label, believing it “shows defiance and disrespect.”

Important voices on both sides of the Atlantic, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, have emphasized that entities like ISIS “are not Islamic and are not a state.” So, why does the term ISIS still remain fixed in public and international discourse?

It’s trite but true to say that words matter. Continuing to use the term ISIS helps build up the adversary, even if this consequence is inadvertent. Use of the term helps fuel the narrative that the group is disseminating, with the goal of attracting new recruits and energizing existing ones.

Nomenclature is obviously on a very different plane than kinetic measures. Nevertheless, it’s worth giving some serious thought to how we speak of the threat, moving forward.