The beheading of British aid worker David Haines last week was another example of the brutality of the terror group operating out of Iraq and Syria, now calling itself the Islamic State (IS) who claim to have set up a caliphate in the region.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, in his statement shortly after the news broke, said that Britain must “drive back, dismantle and ultimately destroy ISIL and what it stands for”. Barack Obama has also stated that the US plans to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL…” ISIL being the expanded term of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In Arabic, the group is known as Al-dawlah al-islamiyah fil Iraq wal Sham, or Da’ish, with Al Sham, commonly, but mistakenly thought to be the region stretching through Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Southern Turkey. This region is most commonly known in English as the Levant, which is where the British and US governments have explained the ISIL name originates.


The group originally came to public attention under the guise of another name, ISIS; the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a name which it is still referred to by many. A name which to this day holds strong historical connotations; Isis being the highly revered Egyptian Goddess whose influence and legend spread to even the Roman Empire.

Commentators have explained their reason for using ISIL is because it is the closest translation to the Arabic term, specifically with reference to Al-Sham. However, In Arabic, the traditional meaning of Al-Sham is simply Damascus. In this case, the literal translation of Da’ish would still be ISIS. This explains the name when they emerged following the merger of the Al-Baghdadi led group in Iraq with Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria.
Bilad-al sham, an entirely different word, is closest to what we call the Levant in English. The group then began to develop their military and political objectives and Al-Baghdadi soon decided to expand its operations to include Jordan and Lebanon and eventually further afield, in the area most commonly known as the Levant, hence the change to ISIL.


The name ISIL however has become an important tool in fostering public opinion and garnering support for military action in combatting the extremist group. Iraq and Syria can be described as the Achilles heel of the Obama administration. The administration’s failure to secure a Status of Forces deal, which would have allowed an agreed contingent of US troops to stay in Iraq to oversee and moderate the transition to minimise the sectarian troubles that were inevitably going to arise. Couple this with the disaster that is Syria and the refusal to arm the moderate factions during the early phases of the uprising created a vacuum which saw extremist groups flood in a establish the alliance between the terrorists in both countries, it’s clear why ISIS and its connotations have fallen out of favour with the administration. The public will be much more forgiving and willing to commit to send in troops to confront and tackle the insurgent threat of ISIL than ISIS.


But what of IS? The group have again changed their name as they continue to expand their objectives possibly beyond the Levant. The name itself implies it is the only Islamic State, representative of all Muslims. In fact they are neither Islamic, nor a state. Their actions are in total contradiction to the fundamental teachings of the religion and are a complete betrayal of the millions of non-violent Muslims around the world. Many Muslims scholars and community leaders in the UK have called for political administrations and the media to refrain from using this term, for fear of alienating Muslims from their communities worldwide. The US and the UK do not refer to IS simply as a refusal to frame them with a name they are universally happy to be labelled. Perhaps it’s better for West to adopt the Arabic term Da’ish, the group have publicly expressed their objection to the name, expressly advising against its usage by the media.

IS poses a major threat to our security both at home and abroad. The influx of foreign fighters joining their ranks and bringing the fight back home, their ever changing names that point towards their bloodthirsty desire to establish their caliphate across the globe and their abhorrent disregard for life tells us that this is beyond a game of name calling and perhaps presents us with an opportunity to fix the fractured relationship between East and West; to bridge the gap and once and for all prove the differences in ideology are really not that great.

Zainab Al-Deen

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