ISIS: Words matter. Concerning the appropriateness of using acronym DAESH

49609535.cached                Slowly some media and politicians begin to use the Arabic acronym DAESH instead of collocations «Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant»[1] or simply Islamic state. First of all, the latter term is incorrect for a number of reasons. Initially, based on the Arabic name, it was about “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” in the understanding of terrorists. Secondly, using of an acronym for the purpose of social support of ideological fight against terrorism is the most optimal. Extremists have repeatedly stated in their advocacy, that, among other things, the name «Islamic state» is necessary for attracting «new brothers» and it has a certain effect on young people in a number of East countries.

An infinite number of terms and definitions regarding radical religious tendencies can confuse even a well-educated reader. This problem is supplemented by a high level of engagement and politicization of everything related to Islam. High-ranking politicians, leading world media quite often use different kinds of terms based on their «brightness» and «sharpness». Adequacy, applicability, and, perhaps, the most important thing, which is goal-setting, sometimes don’t matter in the choice of determining. Here is one well-known example. Thanks to the activity of the media, the term «Wahhabism» has become firmly entrenched in recent years, but the use of it often raises great questions. After all, Wahhabism is a political and religious ideology and form within the Mazhab Hanbali of a single country, which is Saudi Arabia, and it is not a world phenomenon.

 In fairness, we should note that the term terrorism has no common definition. This phenomenon is so fuzzy that, according to various estimates, there are up to two hundred [2] definitions of terrorism.

Requests to rename

On 2 December 2015y. the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Cameron called on the parliament to use the acronym DAESH (terrorist group which is banned all over the world) instead of the already established name «Islamic State». “This diabolical cult has nothing to do with Islam. It should be used the definition of DAESH, and only DAESH, but not IS”- D. Cameron said, speaking in the parliament.

            The first one who proposed to use the term DAESH with respect to the terrorists of Syria and Iraq was French government on September 2014y. “This terrorist grouping is not a state. They want to be like that, but they are not, — French Minister of Foreign affairs Laurent Fabius claimed. — I ask you not to use the term Islamic state, because it causes confusion in the concept of Islam, Islamists and Muslims. The Arabs name it DAESH, and I call to name these thugs DAESH [3]. The Prime Minister of Australia asked the media not to use the term «Islamic state» later. Appeals not to use the above mentioned term with respect to terrorists were heard from Russian religious figures. At the meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club President of Russian Federation Vladimir Putin claimed about the need for a clear division of religion and political activity of terrorists, who hide behind the concepts of The Quran. 

Origin of the name

There is another detail that has special significance. Correct translation of an acronym DAESH into Russian is “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” [4]. The key point here is the preposition «in». There is a big difference between the terms «Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant» and «Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant». Initially, the name of the terrorist organization has been translated into Russian language incorrectly.

            DAESH is an acronym composed of the first letters of the name of this terrorist organization, called in Arabic “al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham”. The purpose of the leaders of this group is to be known as the «Islamic State» rather than «DAESH militants «. Anyway, the name «Islamic state” is inherited from the Prophet Mohammad, it attracts attention, and it is the convenient propaganda mechanism for recruiting new staff. Moreover, this term does not recognize any borders. This technique is able to influence the potential «customers» of DAESH throughout the world: both in the West and in the East. The propagandists of the DAESH noted in their journal DABIQ that the name «al-Dawla al-Islamiya» (Islamic state) will be important and will «attract brothers».

            The Arabic word al-Sham is often found in the works of the thinkers of the Arab medieval falsafa (philosophy). Al-Sham is a conditional region with no clear boundaries, including Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, as well as part of Jordan and Turkey. Arabs often call Syria or Damascus, less often the entire territory of Syria and Lebanon as al-Sham. There is another name for this region — the Levant. This word has Latin (French) origin and dates back to the pre-colonial period. It means the same as al-Sham. Currently, Damascus is most often called al-Sham in the Arab world, and the Levant is a region that includes Syria, Lebanon and part of the territories of neighboring countries. In its turn, the acronym DAESH is banned in the territory controlled by the militants. There are cases when children who uttered the abbreviation of DAESH in the Iraq Anbar province were severely punished [5].

Acronym as an insult

The word «DAESH» doesn’t have any meaning in Arabic language. However, it is consonant with words such as «bully», «stomping» and «sowing division» (daes, dahes). It is noted that it can be an element of ridicule in order to insult to the terrorist organization. Some experts believe that this causes irritation among terrorists. Nevertheless, the usage of the word «bully» against radicals DAESH has no serious influence. The point here is different.

The use of acronyms is not accepted in Arabic. This is a fairly rare phenomenon (however, it also occurs), when terms is used in abbreviation. Thus, in the middle of 2014y., on the wall of the hostel of Kabul University there appeared the inscription «Long live DAESH» (DAESH Zindabad…). Media and government officials have qualified this incident as a proof of DAESH presence in Afghanistan. However, it has not been established who and for what purposes left this inscription on the wall of the hostel for now. And the fact of the use of this acronym reveals that the author of this inscription has a shallow understanding of this organization. DAESH radicals prefer to use the full name of the organization or call it simply as the State (Dawla).

            In this context, almost all Arab and Muslim majority countries of the world have an informal ban on the use of the full name of the terrorist organization. So, for example, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation uses in its official statements exclusively the acronym of the DAESH and never uses the full name of the organization[6]. The same applies to leaders of Arab and many Muslim countries. Victory over terrorism is not only a special operation, and the struggle of ideologies, so-called «war of ideas». That is why careful use of certain terms (especially those who have religious origins) in relation to terrorist groupings is extremely important in the fight against them.

The problem of definitions and the casus of ISIS/DAESH

Religious political scientists, journalists and scientists use different terms analyzing radical trends. The World orientalists have long been facing the problem of a common conceptual apparatus. An adequate scientific response to the so-called «Islamic challenge» can be given provided that the process of studying this phenomenon will have minimum of politicization. “Old”, or more precisely, the traditional terms in the analysis of contemporary trends are acquiring new meanings, and gradually transforming. These are, for example, such terms as «Sunni», «Shiite», «Islamic Party», «Caliphate», «Caliph», etc.

There is the reverse side of the coin, which can be attributed to the problem of goal-setting. What is the purpose of an analysis of the manifestation of radicalism in the East? If the analysis is aimed at an attempt to solve the problem of radicalism or a scientific, impartial study of it, then traditional terminology can confuse and complicate the achievement of these goals. Moreover, usage of them by politicians, government leaders and the media can have a counterproductive effect. In fairness, we have to admit that domestic and foreign oriental studies haven’t been created alternative conceptual apparatus yet.

There is also a third factor that complicates the use of common definitions. The Prophet of Islam Mohammad predicted the fragmentation that is inherent in Islam, noting that after his death the ummah will split into seventy-three sects (shirk). “The Jews will split up into seventy-one or seventy-two sects; and the Christians will split up into seventy one or seventy-two sects; and my community will be split up into seventy-three sects: seventy two of them will go to Hell and one of them will go to Paradise.” Terms such as «militant», «radical», «traditional», «moderate», etc. are used. Thus, the orientalist A. Ignatenko notes that «there are at least seventy-three Islams»[7], and on closer examination conversations about «Islam in general» becomes “pointless».

Seventy-three currents

In connection with this, the academic study of the Middle East and various radical trends, concealed by religion, faces the difficulties of unifying the conceptual apparatus. In the definition of radical currents in Islam, the term Fundamentalism (or Neo-Fundamentalism) is used quite often, but it originally applied to Christianity. The French Islamologist O. Roy notes that fundamentalism as a current has always been present in Islam[8]. In this connection, it will not be superfluous to recall the episode when during the life of the Prophet Mohammad, one of his associates called to return to the «true Islam».[9] The term revivalism, which means the revival of old methods, is quite often used in the West too.

The central place in the ideology of the majority of radical groupings is occupied by historical memory. Radicals are influenced by the idea that Islam has been distorted for centuries, unnecessary elements have been introduced into it, and a lot of them are contrary to the heritage of Mohammad. The era of the Prophet and the Four «Righteous Caliphs» (Al-khulafa ar-rashidun), Abu Bakar, Umar, Usman and Ali, has been chosen as an ideal. In this connection, in their understanding, Islam is required to «renew» and «purify», «revive» by returning to the past.

This concept is usually called «Salafism» (As-Salaf As-salih is pious ancestors). The idea of classical Islamic monotheism (tawhid) has been carried to the extreme and become one of the cornerstones of the ideology of «salafism». Salafism origins date back to the Arabic Middle Ages and connected with the name of the Syrian theologian Ibn Taymiyyah, Taqi al-Din Ahma (1263-1328). Ibn Taymiyyah took an unprecedented step and completed the five pillars of Islam (Arkan al-Din) added jihad to them.

The term «Wahhabism» (or Neo-Wahhabism) is also widely used. Saudi theologian of the 18th century Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhaab is the founder of Hanbalism, which is the most puritanical direction, as Academician A. Vasiliev noted, within the most strictly Sunni madhhab. The teaching of the theologian was based on Salafism (he was familiar with the works of Ibn Taymiyyah) and demanded «a literal reading of the heritage of the righteous ancestors». The basis of this current was a rigid rejection of polytheism and innovations (bid’ah), photographing, as well as other forms of Islamic religion (Shiism, Sufism, other Sunni madhhabs), absolutization of monotheism.

For example, in the Wahhabi sense, any image of a living being is equated to polytheism, namely to shirk and entails a takfir, that is, accusation of unbelief (kufir). Here can be seen another term, which is actively used mainly in Arab countries, takfirizm. Wahhabism as a radical current was extremely successful. Thus, he made it possible to create a single kingdom within the borders of present-day Saudi Arabia, the starting point of which was 1744, the date of the conclusion of a mutually beneficial union between Abd al Wahhab and Muhammad ibn Saud [10]. Active dissemination of ideas of Wahhabism began from the second half of the 1960s., after the establishment of The Muslim World League. These processes especially intensified after a sharp rise of oil prices in the 1970s.

Nevertheless, this term is used too often and not always in the case. «Wahhabism,» as the current within radical Islam, is not something fundamentally new. Wahhabis are the result of the intellectual experiment of a separately taken Mazhab Hanbali theologian, who is committed to Salafi ideas. Thus, «Wahhabis» are supporters of the teachings of Mohammad ibn Abd al Wahhaab (1703/04-1797/98). The application of this term to other Salafist currents is not entirely correct. In any case, Salafism is not a goal in itself or a tool, it is a concrete concept and theory. Quite peaceful people who advocate the «revival» of their religion and return to the times of «righteous caliphs.» can be Salafists. On the other hand, theory is one thing, and practice is quite another. De facto, this «return» can not be non-violent even within one country.

Here it is appropriate to mention term «jihadism». The use of this term is true for those (it can be not only Salafist, and Salafist are not necessarily jihadists), who declared «a sacred struggle for Islam». In this regard, it is possible to give an illustrative example. Some radical Palestinian groupings that declared «jihad» to Israel may be called jihadists, but not Salafist, since they are not supporters of the ideology of «Salafism»[11]. If Salafism is mostly an idea, then jihadism is the practice of this idea. Jihadists are the practices of Salafism, using weapons and terrorist methods to implement their ideas.

On the other hand, there are difficulties here. The fact is that «jihad» is a Quranic term that is repeatedly found in the sacred for Muslims scriptures. Initially, this word was understood as an «effort», the struggle of everyone for their faith and the propagation of the Islamic principles. The verb «jahad» (be zealous, fight) occurs in the Quran more than 20 times. The concept of jihad is divided into two components: “the little jihad” is war against the infidels, the force spread of Islam and “the big jihad”, which is forcing oneself, self-improvement, struggle against vices and social injustice, according to the principles of Islam.

            In the East countries history it is quite common for individual politicians to use this Quranic principle for their political and economic purposes. Moreover, the word «jihad» (within the meaning of the struggle, the effort) is found in a number of Islamic countries in the name of different government institution. Along with this, jihad is a recommended action for Muslims, which becomes mandatory only when the ummah (community) is endangered.

The term «Islamism» quite easily merged into the public consciousness and is actively used by the media, politicians and researchers. There were reasons for that. It includes a root «Islam», which is clear to everyone, besides, the suffix -ism- clearly shows its political essence. In general, we can say that the term of «Islamism» incorporates the concepts of all the above-mentioned terms. A distinctive feature of Islamism is the complete rejection of secularism.

The term «caliphate» has Quranic origin. The word «caliph» is found in the Quran in the meaning of the head of the community, the «heir», «successor» and «representative» of God on earth. However, the Quran does not mention specific principles of the social, political, religious and economic structure of the caliphate. Nothing is said about the Caliph, which is the head of the Ummah. The first attributes of state power were created in the Arab Caliphate after the death of the Prophet Mohammad, with the second righteous Caliph Umar (634-644). Then the system of power, the Arab-Muslim theocracy begins to be formed. Classical examples of the using caliphate as a form of political and religious system were the state of the Umayyads and, partly, the Abbasid.

Fierce disputes were conducted in the Arab Caliphate as to which tribe should be the Caliph from, what are his powers? One more question was added later: should the Caliph be chosen or appointed? It is noted that one of the first who put these questions was the Kharijit sect created in 657y. Many Arab ulemas of the Middle Ages believed that the caliph must be Quraysh, that is, the representative of the Meccan tribe Quraysh, from where Mohammed himself came. However, there were those who believed otherwise. This issue was skillfully used even during the period of its formation by the ideologists of DAESH, who tied the genealogy of its leader, al-Baghdadi, to the genus of Quraysh.

 So, in the XIV century Arab outstanding philosopher and sociologist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) noted in the famous historical and sociological work «The Muqaddimah» (introduction to the «Big Stories»), that the Caliph does not have to be a descendant of the tribe of Quraysh. Ibn Khaldun standed for the election of the Caliph, and believed that any Muslim, but not an Arab could become the head of the Ummah. The Shiites take a different position concerning the process of the power transferring. In their opinion, the genealogy of the Caliph and Imam should ascend to Ali, which is the fourth «righteous caliph».

The problem of the caliphate occupies one of the key places in the ideology of radical Islamists. Either way, Islamists seek to create (recreate) an Islamic empire, The Caliphate. The purpose of this political step is a necessary protection of the ummah from the world of «infidels”. Radicals are convinced that Islamic dogma can be rightly followed only within the Caliphate. Anyway, one of the examples of «revival» of the Caliphate was the «Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan» (IEA), proclaimed by «Taliban» movement in Afghanistan in 1996y. Then the Taliban announced that «IEA will be the first step to the world caliphate of Muslims». It is significant that one of the first prescriptions of the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, was to use the new name of Afghanistan, the Islamic Emirate, as often as possible, so that it would quickly become common.

            The question arises, what are the boundaries of this «caliphate»? What do radicals claim at least by word of mouth? This issue is quite controversial and there is no consensus. The author of this article believes that the creation of the «Empire of the Islamic World» is part of the propaganda of radicals, because achievement of this goal is absolutely impossible. This was written by Academician V. Bartold[12]. De facto, the strategic goal can be defined as the seizure of power in a separate Islamic country (or, more likely, parts of its territory) in the Near and Middle East.

Then, radical transformation of the political, religious, economic and social system of the occupied territories is in the plans of the Islamists. In short, it is the «return» of life and nature to the Middle Ages. It should be noted that the radicals divided their enemies into two groups in order to achieve their goals: the «neighbor enemy» (the countries of the region) and the «distant enemy» (Western countries led by the United States). It can be concluded that the tendency to recreate the » Empire of the Islamic World » is a political rather than a religious phenomenon.

The Two Babylons”

In this regard, goal-setting is important in use of terms in relation to terrorists ISIS. What do you want to achieve when talking about the DAESH? Based on the above, for more precise and complete analysis, the Arabic abbreviation is more correct. On the other hand, the use of the Arabic acronym for the purposes of social support of the fight against terrorism is more appropriate.

The Saudi publicist, close to the royal elite, Abdulrahman al-Rashid agrees with this point of view. Thus, in the leading Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat [13] he noted that today’s DAEIS is not only and not just a military problem, but an ideological one. The use of the term «Islamic state» in many countries of the world, with «correct» and appropriate denominations, does not help the ideological and social struggle against terrorism, and in some cases, with excessive politicization, can contribute to recruiters of DAEIS. As al-Rashid notes, this is the goal of extremists. As Osama bin Laden once wrote, «the two Babylons» will be formed.

[1]  The organization is banned in Russia

[2] Vasiliev A., Gareev V. Historical roots of terrorism // Asia and Africa today. № 4. 2008. P. 32.

[3]French govt to use Arabic ‘Daesh’ for Islamic State group // France 24. 17 September 2014. [].

[4]  Later the grouping changed its name to simply «Islamic state».

[5] Islamic State group name raises objection// Associated Press. 12 September 2014. [].

[6] OIC Condemns Destruction of Historical Monuments in Syria and Iraq by Daesh. 27 August 2015. Official Web-site of OIC. [].

[7] Ignatenko A. A. At least 73 variations of Islam exist in the world. // Russian newspaper. November 18, 2010.

[8] Roy O. EuroIslam: The Jihad Within? // The National Interest. Spring 2003. [].

[9] Malashenko A. The Islamic alternative and the Islamist project. Moscow: Carnegie Moscow Center, 2006. P. 60.

[10]  Kosach G.G. Saudi Arabia: the internal political processes of the reform stage (late 1990-2006). Moscow: Institute of the Middle East, 2007. P. 9.

[11]  Naumkin VV Islamic radicalism in the mirror of new concepts and approaches. M.: KomKniga, 2005. P. 7-8.

[12] Bartold V.V. Works. T. VI. Moscow: Nauka, 1966. P. 420.

[13] Daesh wa al-marakat al-asm // ash-Sharq al-Ausat. 25 tamuz 2015 (in Arabic)

Georgi Asatryan, Ph.D., orientalist

This article was published on April 2016 in the International Affairs Council (RIAC, in Russian)

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