Words matter - and that's why David Cameron is right to use the term Daesh

Other names which link the terror group to Islam are fuelling a propaganda war which is leading to the spread of Islamophobia in Britain

Miqdaad Versi
Wednesday 02 December 2015 16:44
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Fighters from Isis parading in Raqqa, northern Syria, where the ‘Islamic State’ has its capital.
Fighters from Isis parading in Raqqa, northern Syria, where the ‘Islamic State’ has its capital.

As its supporters murder innocent civilians across the world, most recently in Paris, Beirut and Nigeria, we cannot continue to allow it to propagate the view that it is either “Islamic” or a “state”. Arguments to this effect have been made by political leaders from across the world, including President Obama, and religious scholars from all sects of Islam.

While the choices before the Houses of Parliament about airstrikes in Syria are of significantly more importance, language does matter. According to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Daesh has between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria – a relatively small figure. Its importance internationally is magnified through social media and online, where its propaganda has reached new heights of sophistication.

At the minimum, we cannot act as its loudspeaker and support its claim to be an “Islamic state” or linked to “Islam” by using acronyms such as Isis or Isil. Such language gives it legitimacy by projecting its claim to act as the utopia to those it would not otherwise be able to reach. But, equally importantly, it also associates Islam with this terror group, which in part leads to the growing hatred towards Muslims in Britain.

According to an Islamophobia Roundtable in Stockholm held in June last year, the regular association of Islam and Muslims with crime and terror in the media and on the internet is vital to the spread of Islamophobic rhetoric. And we can see this through recent polling: over half the British population sees Islam (not fundamentalist groups) as a threat to Western liberal democracy; nearly 40 per cent would support policies to decrease the number of Muslims in the UK; and more than a quarter of young children even believe that Islam encourages terrorism and extremism.

The question is what should we call it and why. Its name is now “Al-Dawla al-Islamiyya”, which translates to “The Islamic State”.

My preference, and that of experts across the world, would be to use “Daesh”: the term used by the local population and media in the region; and the term which also can be indirectly considered a play on words and an insult. In addition, using foreign terms such as Daesh helps makes decision-making more rational according to a study from the University of Chicago.

Some within the media insist that we use the same name that they choose for themselves. Other than the obvious fallacies of such an approach, such an insistence is inconsistent. There is almost unanimity amongst all mainstream media groups that the terror group based in the northern provinces of Nigeria is “Boko Haram”, the term used by the local media and local population. This is despite the fact the real name of the group is “Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah li al-da’wa wa al-jihad”, which translates to “Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad” and despite the fact the term “Boko Haram” is considered pejorative.

This makes it all the more dumbfounding why the BBC said that it would not use the term Daesh as it “must remain impartial and not use pejorative language” when it responded to a letter led by Conservative MP Rehman Chishti, and signed by over 100 MPs including the London Mayor Boris Johnson; and when it responded to a letter from the largest Muslim umbrella body, the Muslim Council of Britain. It is also highly unusual to see the names of terror groups (Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Hamas, Boko Haram, and Eta, for example) translated except for in this case – another blaring inconsistency.

Some claim that the term Daesh is not familiar to a British audience, even though the terms used for all foreign terror groups are similarly not “familiar”, or that Arabs do not normally use acronyms, even though Hamas is an acronym. These arguments are clearly without merit. And the clunky terminology of “so-called Isil” or “self-styled Islamic State” do not work practically and help the terrorists spread their message.

Changing what we call this death cult, will not solve the problem. But the question of how we frame the way we think and talk about this group, to disassociate the terror from the hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, cannot be ignored.

Miqdaad Versi is a grassroots Muslim activist and assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain. The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter: @miqdaad

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