President Barack Obama has been very careful to enunciate clearly the acronym of the terrorist organization whose forces have taken Mosul and have been rapidly advancing toward Baghdad. ISIL, or “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” is the official U.S. nomenclature for this group.
Others, if not most outside the government, call the group “ISIS”, or “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”.
The actual name of the organization in Arabic is
الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام or داعش (dāʿiš). The pronunciation of the Arabic acronym is something like “Da eesh”.
See Patrick J. lyons and Mona El-Maggar, “What to Call Iraq Fighters? Experts Vary on S’s and L’s; Islamic State in Iraq and Syria? Or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant?” New York Times, June 18, 2014.
The nuances of meaning in the two alternate names, neither of which contains a precise translation of the Arabic word “al-Sham”, is a matter of some intellectual interest.
But when Obama spelled out “eye ess eye ell” for the TV cameras, he was stressing that he knew the correct name for this group, and that we should learn to say it correctly.
Or perhaps it was just so new to him, despite the last year’s events in Syria and Western Iraq, that he was simply trying to get it right himself.
Does it matter? In a theoretical sense, there could be an issue as to whether the goals of the group are to establish a caliphate “in Iraq and Greater Syria (which encompasses Lebanon), or in a much broader but not clearly-defined region, “the Levant”. The term includes parts of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel and the Left Bank. The term was used 100 or 200 years ago by European colonial powers, but has fallen out of usage, in part because of its colonialist overtones.
But is the translation of an acronym really the right place to sort this out?
The Arabic refers to “al-Sham”, which itself has a vague meaning in historical usage, but at least it starts with “S”.
Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the military, political and diplomatic aspects of the crisis, rather than the linguistic ones?
Does Obama have any sense of what is salient, at this particular moment, and what must be decided and executed today?
Or is he lost in an academic world where what ultimately counts is a brilliant analysis, articulated in well-crafted words? Or is he, or is he at the same time, lost in a legislator’s sense of time, where all issues seemingly can be visited again?
The president seems far removed from the ominous requirements of decisive action and consequences which Dwight D. Eisenhower faced on the eve of the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, or which John F. Kennedy faced as Soviet warships carrying nuclear missiles bore down on Cuba in October, 1962.
In any event, what is salient and requires urgent decision, now, is certainly not to insist on “ISIL” when everyone else is using “ISIS”.
It is actions, and actions taken at the right moment, that will determine the outcome of the current crisis in Iraq and Syria.
Had Obama acted two and a half years ago with even a minimal use of force to halt Bashar al-Assad’s massive war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, we probably wouldn’t even be talking today about Iraq falling apart because of ISIS or ISIL.
You could call the group “The Flying Rocket Men”, for all the difference the name makes.
As for The Observer, I’ll stick with ISIS, or “Da’ish”.
The Trenchant Observer