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ISIS? ISIL? Islamic State? Daesh? What's in a name? A lot.

Language Matters in Life and Business: Words of War

hurt lockerEveryone knows how important words are in politics. Just ask Frank Luntz, Republican pollster, propagator of provocative epithets like “death tax,” and promoter of the rhetorical switch from “global warming” to the less-dangerous-sounding “climate change.” Asked about how he advised an energy company on how to sell its policies to the public, he told PBS’s Frontline: “It’s not substance; it’s language.”

The substance right now, in the days after the horrendous terrorist attacks in Paris, is the West’s response to that latest outrage by the so-called Islamic State. Part of our response rests on how we view that entity. And how we view it is in turn influenced by what we call it.

There are a number of common terms: ISIS; ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant); the Islamic State (or IS); and the Arabic term “Daesh,” an acronym that signifies in Arabic what ISIS does in English.

Most of us know that “ISIS,” probably the term most commonly used in the American media, stands for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” But there’s more to it than that. In Arabic, the “S” stands not for the modern country of Syria but for “Shaam,” which means, as Arabic scholar David Stansfield explains,

the ‘North,’ the ‘Greater Syria’ that encompasses, not only Cyprus and part of southern Turkey, but also the artificial states the British and the French carved out of the Ottoman Empire after World War One: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Palestine – and subsequently Israel. For most of the last three thousand years, all these regions were one, not only under the empires of the Ottomans, the Caliphs, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Greeks and the Persians, but also under the AsSYRIAns, and even more ancient civilizations before that, dating all the way back to 2,500 B.C.

Thus the “Islamic State” conceives itself as a caliphate extending far beyond the fuzzy borders of the territory it now controls in Iraq and Syria.

Western powers have made mistake after mistake in the Middle East and North Africa since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago, and began erring with renewed vigor under the Bush-Cheney regime. Addressing this sad history, rectifying the errors when possible, and overcoming the forces of violence and mayhem to move the world in a more peaceful direction begin with understanding not only what we have done in the past, but also the enemy’s vision for its future as captured in the words it uses.

 

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases.Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires.Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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One comment

  1. Dr Joseph S Maresca

    A long time ago, Former Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger explained the complexities involved when two great forces oppose each other significantly over time as was the case with Iran and Iraq. These countries engaged in one of the bloodiest wars in history. Very limited gains could be made by either side for a long time.

    Then came a limited engagement by POTUS Bush the Elder to deal with Saddam Hussein’s aggressiveness in Kuwait. Saddam was forced back and the Operation Desert Storm was a tremendous success. POTUS Bush the Elder stopped there because the risks of punishing Saddam further were too unpredictable and the notion of “You break it-You fix it” prevailed. Once the US and its coalition forces left, the area returned to a relative counterbalance because Iraq (although humiliated) was still a competitive force for Iran.

    Fast forward another decade! POTUS Bush the II actually took out Saddam Hussein leaving a power vacuum in place. That power vacuum was never fully sealed for a variety of reasons. First, the Iraqis , although trained were not prepared to cope fully with the challenges on both sides of the country. i.e. Iran, ISIS and others. Over time, Iraq began to lose gains made as the result of a successful surge earlier. Now, the challenge is to reseal the country’s borders- a task made more difficult by ISIS and possibly Iran itself. Even if Iraq could return to its preferred position before our withdrawal, a daunting task still remains in permanently securing its borders.