DAESH, ISIL, ISIS, IS: What’s in a Name? Surely a terrorist group, by any name, would smell as rotten? (Sorry Shakespeare, but we even have roses that don’t smell at all these days!) I came to the decision a few weeks ago to use the acronym DAESH when referring to the terrorist group that calls itself IS, or Islamic State, and this is to explain why I’m doing this.

DAESH is the name used in the Arab world, and the French government also recently decided they would use that name. Most Western governments use ISIL, while ISIS seems to be de rigueur in the media. IS is what the group calls themselves. More importantly, they hate the name DAESH, which seems to me to be a good reason to use it, but there’s more to it than that, which I’ll get to.

ISIL (Islamic State in the Levant) and ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or Islamic State in Syria and al-Sham) are generally interchangeable. My opinion is that the media has adopted ISIS over ISIL because it rhymes nicely with “crisis”, which is always useful for headlines, and it’s easier to say quickly when asking questions at a press conference. Just try saying ISIL crisis three times fast, then ISIS crisis three times fast!

The objection to IS, especially in the Muslim world, is two-fold. Firstly, that the first “I” stands for Islamic, and they contend DAESH is not Islamic. Most Western leaders go out of their way to agree with them on this, whether or not it’s their personal opinion. Most notably US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have both made a point of saying that “ISIL is not Islamic” and “Islam is a religion of peace”.

I think there is no doubt that DAESH is Islamic. Quite apart from anything else, whether you’re using ISIL, ISIS or IS, that first “I” stands for Islamic. As far as this group is concerned, this is the whole point of their existence. There are, of course, multiple reasons why they began, many of which are unrelated to religion. However, they believe Islam and Sharia are the solution to every problem, and further, that it’s heretical to even suggest otherwise. All their actions, including their murders of innocents, are accompanied by shouts of Allah u Akbar (God is great), and they enforce a strict form of Sharia wherever they go. According to them, their inspiration in every part of their lives is Mohammed and the Qur’an. Naturally, no decent Muslim wants their religion to be associated with such people, but that doesn’t change the facts. It’s like Christians denying the Westboro Baptist Church are fellow Christians, although at least the WBC doesn’t murder those who disagree with them.

The second objection to the name IS is that the “S” stands for state. This is a valid objection. DAESH is not a state and the idea of recognizing them as such is abhorrent. The dream of their current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, of establishing a caliphate is equivalent to that of Hitler’s third reich, and just as repugnant. Unlike most terrorist groups, they have developed a structure similar to that of a real state.

DAESH Command Structure

So where does the word come from? If you translate ISIS/ISIL into Arabic then Anglicize it, you apparently get “al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham”, which becomes the acronym DAESH. If that’s all there was to it, of course I might as well stick to ISIL, which is what I used to use. However, although there’s no actual word “daesh” in Arabic, it sounds similar to two words:

Daes (one who crushes something underfoot)
Dahes (one who sows discord)


Pieter van Ostæyen, from whose website I originally got the information on the origins of the acronym, says that it seems to be only enemies of DAESH who use this acronym within the Arabic world.

Anti-DAESH graphic from the website ‘The Islamic Voice of Turkey’

By using DAESH I am consciously lining myself up with those who oppose the group. I feel like using ISIL or ISIS is too neutral and IS is just playing into their hands. I’ve noticed many in the media who at least used to say “so-called Islamic State” or “self- designated Islamic State”, are not even including the “so-called” or “self-designated” anymore, and I find that offensive. I like the strong stance France is taking in this matter, virtually alone amongst Western nations. I hope others will consider using the acronym DAESH in the future.

Russian censorshipNote: I tried to go back to Pieter van Ostæyen’s article today so I could provide readers with a link to his article. I got the message on the right. Van Ostaeywn is a Belgian historian with an expertise in the Arabian and Islamic world. The article simply provided the etymology of the acronym DAESH, and was is English. It included the exact translation of the Arabic words and also the actual Arabic script. There was nothing controversial in the article. However, he still seems to be tweeting freely (@p_vanostaeyen), so I don’t think anything has happened to him, but the idea that he’s been censored like this is disgusting and is an example of why  Russia got it’s current appalling and worsening ratings in relation to freedom of society.


 Note: I slightly changed this post on 15 December 2015 to give different anglicized spelling for the Arabic for DAESH, and a second meaning for the acronym ISIS. I also made some minor formatting changes.


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