Wednesday, August 27, 2014

ISIS and ISIL--or, to QSIS and Beyond

Admittedly it is hard to find the lighter side of the rise of the grim jihadist group casting a dark spectre over Iraq right now, but if anything is funny, it's hearing a bunch of news reporters asking about ISIS and having the president answer their questions using the word ISIL. He never says, "Uh, it's actually ISIL" but I can't help hearing his refusal to use their term as a bit patronizing, intentionally or not. Then the other day, I heard some other White House official answer questions about ISUS by saying something like "It's important to understand that I.S.I.L. is...", which came across as seeming even more pedantic.

On the level of just sound and hearing, I suppose it isn't that much different than hearing reporters ask about "ee-ROCK" and having the president talking about "eye-RACK", but in terms of comprehension at least we knew they were all talking about the same place. The dissonance in this more recent term has the effect of making me feel like I've missed a beat, or that maybe the press has. And of course we probably have. But still, after bringing it up at a discussion last night, I realized I should probably try and track this down.

At first this seemed easy enough. There are plenty of articles out there already on this confusing topic. But woe to those who wade into this tricky thicket lightly. It turns out that it's a matter of translation, but also a matter of politics.

The name of the group in Arabic is Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. This, according to the Associated Press, which switched over to the ISIL version, means the The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. What is al-Sham, you ask? Well, according to the AP, it is the region comprising southern Turkey and extending down through Syria to Egypt  and also including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.This is the area which the group wants to restore to being a caliphate, or Islamic state. It is also the area which in the West has broadly (and loosely) been termed the Levant. To Western eyes, the term just meant the Mediterranean lands east of Italy (so says Wikipedia), and, using the French word for 'rise', means  basically the lands of the rising sun.

from the website Make Hummus, Not War

So, ISIL--the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. As opposed to ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

BUT--Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post  quotes a Syrian analyst named Hassan Hassan saying that there is a difference between al-Sham and Bilad al-Sham. Al-sham, he says, is basically Syria and more specifically is used to refer to Damascus, while Bilad al-Sham is greater Syria or the lands we historically have thought of as the Levant. He also points out that if we are going to use an older, out of date name like the Levant, we should use a corresponding older name for Iraq, which would be Mesopotamia.

As you can see, there are variant spellings.
 (The map was apparently uploaded to Wikicommons from the website of someone named Paulo Porsia

When you use modern "Iraq", use the modern term "Greater Syria" — in that case, it's the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (still ISIS).

I would have thought that would be ISIGS, but maybe that's just me.

The Washington Post goes on to say it would be more accurate to just use the Arabic world's shorthand for the group, namely DAIISH. They go on to say usually that it's fairly typical for English to create acronyms that preserve the original language to some degree.

But here the plot thickens still further. Unbeknownst to me, and apparently ignored by any news media I follow, on June 29th ISIS declared that they didn't want to be called the Islamic State of anything, but simply the Islamic State (al-Dawla al-Islamiya), because they had established a new caliphate that didn't respect the old borders. This in turn called up a response from  Dar el-Ifta, which is a leading educational institute that weighs in on matters important to the practice of the Islamic faith, begged the media not to use that name in reference to the group as they did not think a radical fringe of Islam should be allowed to present itself as the face of Islam as a whole. Their solution? Why not QSIS?

On the other hand, why QSIS? Well, the group formerly known as ISIS was even more formerly known as a faction of al Qaeda in Iraq. But tensions mounted between al Qaeda and this splinter group and they parted ways this spring. So QSIS stands for "al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq"

I have one little problem with this idea, though, and that is how to pronounce it. Q-sis? Ki-sis? Kwi-sis?

Come to think of it, maybe just Crisis would sum up all its many latent possibilities.

Footnote: Dammit. Slate just wrote up this same question. I haven't read it through, but it's probably more authoritative than this account. Get it all here.



  1. I can't believe it. I'm watching Rachel Maddow right now, and they are tackling exactly the same issue. I'll try to remember to post the link but the date is 8/27 if you want to check it out online

  2. Your blog (and one or two others) should not swallow comments if the commenter first types the comment, then signs in. But it does.

    In any case, does Obama really all but sneer at reporters less au fait than he is in re abbreviations?

  3. And damn me I did not forget what I had typed in my previous comment, and thereby lost the comment I had just typed. The message this time is that I just read a news article that referred simply to "Islamic State.".

  4. Not sure what to do about that, Peter. I can look at the formatting, but I probably won't be able to figure out the protocol.

    No, he isn't sneering, but it comes across as though he was. But as Richard Engel pointed out on the Rachel Maddow show, once he started calling it ISIL, he couldn't really change it. People don't even like it when he wears a tan suit for heaven's sake.

    Both the AP and the Washington Post are meeting ISIS's demands tg call it the Islamic State, but not everyone. I will try to call it QSIS and see if anyone knows what I'm talking about.

  5. Oh, wonderful. Now newspapers and wire services are letting terrorist groups dictate matters of style. We have fallen far from the days when we took our orders from Strunk and White.

  6. I think the line between respectfulness and subservience is probably a little harder to draw these days.

    Personally, I put up the picture of the president and the maps so that I wouldn't have to put up anything that would enhance QSIS's brand. It's very good branding, but like the success of the Marlboro man, it kind of sucks.