The Orwellian conceit that you can control reality by controlling the language is alive and well in the battle against ISIS. Normally manipulating the language is a favorite tactic of totalitarian regimes that like to call themselves “democratic people’s republics” when they are anything but. But now a lot of well-intentioned people seem to think that language manipulation can be a formidable weapon against the most powerful terrorist group the world has ever seen.
I’ve been attending the Halifax Security Conference this weekend in Canada where a number of speakers have made a point of referring to ISIS as “Daesh.” That is a loose Arabic acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham–i.e., the Islamic State of Iraq and “al-Sham” (variously translated as Syria or the Levant). Apparently ISIS hates to be called “Daesh,” because it “has many negative undertones, as Daesh sounds similar to the Arabic words Daes (‘one who crushes something underfoot’) and Dahes (‘one who sows discord).”
ISIS prefers to be called “Islamic State,” a designation that many who are opposed to it refuse to confer because they refuse to concede that ISIS is either “Islamic” or a “state.” I even heard one woman suggest that the acronym “ISIS” should not be used because it is the name of an important ancient Egyptian goddess.
I appreciate the intentions of those who want to call ISIS by a name it dislikes, but they are engaging in magical thinking if they imagine that ISIS can be severely hurt, much less defeated, simply by calling it by another name. Actually “Islamic State” is an accurate description, because ISIS is an Islamic organization (even if it hardly represents mainstream Islam) and it is a state insofar as it is able to control and administer a substantial chunk of territory even if other states have not extended it formal recognition.
There is actually something bracing about facing up to the reality of “Islamic State” rather than indulging in verbal acrobatics that can have scant impact in actually defeating this evil organization. But that doesn’t mean that simply repeating over and over again that the enemy we face is “Islamic extremism” — as some Republicans insist on doing — will win the war on terrorism. President Obama and his aides have gone too far in eschewing that term “Islamic extremism” for fear of offending law-abiding Muslims, but some Republicans go too far in embracing the term as if labeling the enemy is enough to defeat it.
Equally futile are well-intentioned efforts to counter ISIS’s appeal online by trying to convince its Internet audience that it is not an admirable organization. This ignores the reality that some people are attracted to organization such as ISIS–just as they were attracted to the SS or the Khmer Rouge–precisely because, not in spite of, its evil intentions.
Defeating ISIS will require a commitment of ground forces and air power. Tens of thousands of troops will be necessary. Those ground forces don’t have to be provided by the US but they do have to be provided by someone — and so far they have not been forthcoming. I can’t help but think that people who engage in rhetorical games for the sake of “countering” ISIS’s message are diverting themselves from the hard realities of what it will take to defeat the Islamic State.