Everyone 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.