ISIS, IS or ISIL, Terrorism by Any Other Name

The U.S. has chosen “ISIL” as the name of the militant group headed by Al-Baghdadi. Does it matter?

By Rick Brinegar


Whether you choose to say, “slender” or “skinny,” “house” or “home,” or, “global warming” or “climate change,” it seems that words are used differently and mean different things in the minds of different people. It may simply be a choice made according to personal preference. In other words, the variation in usage could just be a matter of selecting a phrase you like, as in, “You like potato and I like potahto. You like tomato and I like tomahto.” So it might seem with the way that the militant terrorist movement headed by Abu Bak’r al-Baghdadi has been variously termed, “ISIS,” “IS,” and “ISIL.” In the world of international diplomacy, however, the choice of words seems to reflect something deeper, especially when the White House prefers to call the terrorist group, “ISIL,” rather than the “Islamic State.”


Originally, Al-Baghdadi called his movement “al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham,” also known by the acronym, “DAESH,” which is translated “of Iraq and al-Sham.” “Sham” is the eastern crescent of the Mediterranean, from Istanbul west to Egypt, including Cyprus and, most significantly, Israel. In other words, it is a reference to the historic caliphate of the 7th century, which included the entire Near and Middle East. The French called the region the “Levant,” meaning, “where the sun rises,” an easier term to comprehend than “Sham.” This produced the acronym “ISIL,” in other words, “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”


More recently, when ISIS declared a caliphate state on the first day of Ramadan in 2014, it dropped “Iraq and al Sham” from its name, changing it to “The Islamic State”, or “IS,” with Abu Bak’r al-Baghdadi as the new Caliph.


News organizations have had to make an awkward choice in terminology. For example, Foreign Policy finally chose “IS” or “Islamic State.” According to FP’s copy chief, “The rationale is that this is the group’s self-designated name, even if we think the group is despicable.” Preeti Aroon continued, “Also, we don’t want readers to think Foreign Policy is oblivious to the name change.”


Officially, when President Obama refers to the militant Islamist group as ISIL instead of the “IS” or Islamic State, it reflects the White House’s desire to separate the extremist movement from the religion, Islam. Whether it is at all possible to make that distinction is another matter entirely. Perhaps “ISIL” is merely a validation that the group claims to be politically and religiously legitimate. But I think it goes deeper than that.


The administration’s use of the term “ISIL” seems to reveal what many claim are the true allegiances and animosities of America’s executive branch of government. Could it be that President Obama is actually sending a coded message when he uses the term “ISIL,” that, deep down inside, he thinks of Israel as an occupier of the territory rightfully belonging to Islam?


The Jewish people base their historical claim to Israel on the facts that the Jewish people settled and developed the land, that the international community granted political sovereignty in Palestine to the Jewish people, that the territory was captured in defensive wars, and, more importantly, that God promised the land to the patriarch Abraham.


The United States can abandon Israel if we dare. But we should be aware that we are dealing with a power far greater than Al-Baghdadi’s, and it is the power that commands heaven’s armies.

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