What’s in a Name? A Guide to the Subtle but Serious Implications of Choosing ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State or Daesh

As the world as grapples with the threat posed by the Islamic State, leaders and the media can't agree on what to call it.

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A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter he takes up position in an area overlooking Baretle village, controlled by the Islamic State, near Mosul September 8, 2014.
A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter he takes up position in an area overlooking Baretle village, controlled by the Islamic State, near Mosul September 8, 2014.Credit: Reuters

How can world leaders agree on how to fight a band of bloodthirsty extremists if we don’t know what to call them?

In his address describing the Paris attacks as "an act of war" against France, President François Hollande attributed this act of war to "a terrorist army, a jihadist army, by Daesh."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a similar reference to the group also known as ISIS, ISIL, and the Islamic State, calling them "Daesh" at an international conference on Syria in Vienna.

It seems as though almost from the moment we all first became aware of the group that wants an Islamic state to engulf the Middle East, we’ve been puzzling out what its name should be. While English language and Western diplomats and media outlets hadn’t previously favored Daesh, opting for titles like ISIS or ISIL, it seems terminology tides are changing once more.

Here’s a look at what the organization has been called so far – and why.

1. Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham

STANDS FOR: “The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria” in Arabic.

The full name of the group in Arabic.

This wasn’t always its name. Though versions of the group existed earlier, it was founded under this name in 2004, the Arabic name ended with the word ‘Iraq’. The new name was born in 2012, after the group entered into the fray in Syria. Non-Arabic speakers rarely refer to the group by its full name – as it is clearly is too much of a mouthful, even for those familiar with Arabic. Clearly the name had to be shortened, but the way in which it is abbreviated both reflects and shapes the way it is being approached.


STANDS FOR: An abbreviated version of the Arabic name translated as “The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria.”

Currently the most commonly used term for the group in the English-speaking world and media, unless you are President Obama or a U.S. government official.

It’s rather strange that somewhere along the line, it was determined that the group’s name should be both Anglicized and abbreviated. After all, nobody refers to TPOG for “The Party of God” - they call the Lebanese organization by its Arabic name, “Hezbollah.” And no one ever refers to Hamas as “IRM,” standing for the “Islamic Resistance Movement.”

But ISIS is the name that has stuck, despite the terrible unfairness to the legacy of an ancient Egyptian goddess, and much to the dismay of numerous spas, nail salons, and even a lingerie line named after her. And women named Isis are clearly not amused.


STANDS FOR: An abbreviated version of the Arabic name translated as “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant."

An alternative translation and abbreviation to ISIS, the official name of the organization used by the U.S. government.

The U.S. government clearly officially rejects using the term “ISIS.” In all of their public pronouncements, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have use the term “ISIL” though numerous members of Congress, and the media prefer “ISIS.”

‘Levant’ is a creaky and colonial term for the Eastern Mediterranean, which the Oxford Encyclopedia tells us includes “Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and part of southern Turkey.”

The Obama administration’s swim-against-the-tide choice of “ISIL” over “ISIS” has drawn media attention as a clear – and often-confusing - bid to avoid uttering the word “Syria.”

As Chuck Todd, the moderator of “Meet the Press” said recently “Obviously, we refer to it at NBC News as ISIS. The Obama administration, the president says the word ISIL. The last ‘S’ stands for Syria. The last ‘L’ they don’t want to have stand for Syria.”

Why? Some believe the intent is to send a message that while the U.S. is ready to do battle in Iraq, it doesn’t want to get involved in the complicated mess in Syria. The less generous hint at darker reasons with a wink, like Fox News’ Harris Faulkner who suggested that Obama’s use of ISIL was “tipping his hat” to the group because “Levant is a bigger territory. That’s why they want to embrace that name and it includes many, many more countries than just Syria.”

Faulkner merely insinuated, but less discreet and mainstream far-right wing websites have taken the charge much further - smack into “Obama is a Muslim born in Indonesia with a secret agenda” crackpot territory.

In the extreme right corners of the Internet, the President has been accused of sending a “coded” or “hidden” message to the world by using the term ISIL. They ask rhetorically – guess which country is smack in the middle of the ‘Levant’? Israel!

For the unsubtle, the outlets - most of whom are linked to Christian evangelism but include at least one Jewish site - feature a map of the “Levant” with a big fat red line scrawled around Israel.

Others on the right offer a less conspiratorial and more political explanation for the use of “ISIL” over “ISIS.” Obama, they say, doesn’t want to utter the names of Iraq and Syria -- “the two countries that many believe define Obama’s continued failure in the Middle East.”

4. IS

STANDS FOR: An abbreviated version of “Islamic State.”

What the organization now calls itself in Arabic, reflecting wider ambitions beyond Iraq and Syria.

Used by some in the media who are trying to avoid the ISIS/ISIL conundrum – but very infrequently.

It's short. It's easy. But the fact that it is identical to such a common verb - is - makes it a Google nightmare and really problematic in headlines (my personal theory as to why the media has resisted using it). The headline “IS is making significant progress” looks like a typo.

5. Islamic State

STANDS FOR: The most accurate unabbreviated translation of what the group calls itself.

Increasingly used by the media to refer to the group – many have stopped saying “ISIS” and switched to “Islamic State.”

It’s clear that the simplest way to solve the “name the organization” problem is to write out the words Islamic State. It’s what the group calls itself, and expresses their nature and the extent of their threat.

It’s a logical solution, but psychologically very difficult. It’s the same reason Israelis will only refer to the “Palestinian Authority” and get their back up when people refer to ‘Palestine.’ Saying the name of an entity makes it sound legitimate and real. When we use the words “Islamic State” it feels as if saying the words make it a reality - that we aren’t referring to a fringe group in a desperate struggle to make a caliphate real, but an actual existing Islamic State.

6. Da’ash/Da’ish/Daesh

STANDS FOR: An abbreviated version of the group’s previous name in Arabic - Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham.

A commonly-used name for the organization in Israel and across the Middle East, usually referred to as a derogatory moniker.

In Israel, there is no other name for the Islamic State – only Da'ash, and the abbreviation is popular in other parts of the Middle East as well. But don’t make the mistake of using it in the territory where the group is in control. They consider it an insult. If as an article in Slate reports, calling the group Da’ash on its own turf is “a crime which is reportedly punishable by flogging,” it’s clear that they, more than anyone, take their name very seriously.

This article was originally published on September 10, 2014, and was updated on November 18, 2015.

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