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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Sunday, August 10, 2014

What's In a Name?

The Islamic State, the self-styled "caliphate" that was once called al Qaeda in Iraq, has had its share of rebrandings and also its share of brand confusion. Most recently, it was called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), with the translation or transliteration from Arabic into English providing much fodder for pedantic commentary (and I am not exempting myself from that category).

When the Islamic State dropped the -IS or -IL from its name at the end of June, concurrent with its declaration that it was now a caliphate, it seemed this was the end of the inside-baseball naming controversy. But no, when President Obama announced military strikes on IS this week, he continued to refer to them as ISIL.

The rationale, as explained by Matt Apuzzo of the New York Times and others, is that referring to the Islamic State by its' self-appointed name would legitimize its declaration of the caliphate.

This idea is at worst absurd, and at best wildly inconsistent. Extremist groups always adopt a name that reflects their greater ambitions, and as a rule, we refer to them by the names they choose. Do we legitimize the concept of a white-only state when we refer to the Aryan Nations? Do we legitimize Marxist-Leninist philosophy as shiny when we use the name Shining Path? Are we implying that fascism will bring a Golden Dawn when we talk about the Greek political party?

No, no and no. Ultimately, I suspect this comes back to a fundamental problem I've discussed before in the U.S. government's approach to Muslim extremists -- condescending overkill. The theory is that "legitimizing" IS by referring to it by its chosen name will have repercussions in the Muslim world that would not somehow apply to Christians when we talk about Christian Identity.

The Islamic State is not a special case, and ironically, we elevate its claim to legitimacy when we treat it differently from every other two-bit megalomaniacal movement that seeks to establish itself as the claimant of a global mandate.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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