ISIS, ISIL or Daesh? Either Way, Obama Gets it Right

Last week, a terrorist group launched a coordinated attack across Paris. In the past few weeks, the very same group took down a Russian airliner full of returning tourists, bombed a neighborhood in Beirut, and struck at a peace rally in Turkey. We all seem to be agreed on the need to fight them. We seem far less sure what to call them. ISIS? ISIL? Daesh? Violent extremists?

Who are they?

The terror movement started in Iraq as a branch, or subsidiary, of al-Qaeda, and was organized after the American invasion, intended to lead a guerilla war against American forces in the manner the mujahideen had gone after the Soviets in Afghanistan. Only years later did we realize that this was bin Laden’s hope for the September 11 attacks all along: To drag the US into costly quagmires which would bleed us, financially and literally, into decline.

Bin Laden’s strategy did not work out for him, in large part because his Iraqi franchise was too murderous.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq was known, for some time, as the Islamic State in Iraq, or ISI. (Unhelpfully, this gave them the same acronym as Pakistan’s intelligence service, namely Inter-Services Intelligence). From very early on, however, al-Qaeda’s top leaders had trouble getting the Iraqi group to do as they asked. Al-Qaeda wanted its subsidiaries and foot soldiers to focus on attacking Western targets, and have increasingly demanded operations which avoid Muslim casualties, in the belief that this would cost them popular support.

The Islamic State in Iraq instead focused on Shia Muslims, who they believed were not Muslim. Following a strategy that ISIS continues to hew to, they wanted to provoke an Iraqi civil war which would force the region’s Sunnis behind its banners, and create the kind of chaos and mistrust that would allow a state to take root. One thing’s for sure: Years of repeated, horrific attacks against Shia Iraqis led to deep divisions in Iraqi society, which have yet to heal. Iraqi al-Qaeda was nearly destroyed by Sunnis, ironically enough, who rose up against their brutality; they were however given a new lease on life when the Syrian democratic uprising turned violent.

After the Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship turning violent, the tensions between al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Qaeda central broke to the surface. Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, which is known as Jabhat an-Nusra, refused to accept the authority of its Iraqi branch and instead pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda central, while the Iraqi branch, never very comfortable with Bin Laden’s less murderous savagery then declared itself independent. They called themselves the Islamic State in Iraq, and subsequently the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

So they’re ISIS, right?

Well, not so fast.


The group’s Arabic name is ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyya fi’l Iraq wa ash-Sham, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham. Historically, Sham has been used as a name for modern-day Syria, but it has also been used to describe the Levant, or greater Syria, an historic region which includes Palestine (and now Israel), Jordan, Lebanon, and modern-day Syria. The question is, did ISIS mean Syria or greater Syria? Some have translated the group as “the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” while others, including our government, translate the group’s name as “the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” indicating the terror movement’s ever more expansionist ambitions.

They’re not just stopping at Syria, in other words.

The Islamic State has made a big deal out of its overthrow of the Sykes-Picot agreement, an underhanded accord which, exactly 100 years ago this coming spring, performed a bait-and-switch on a disgruntled minority of Arabs who wished to overthrow the Ottomans who once ruled the Middle East. The British promised these Arabs their own state, while working behind the scenes to split the region up between British and French zones of influence; at the same time, the British promised Zionists the right to colonize Palestine, against the national aspirations of the indigenous, mostly Muslim population. New countries were constructed, including Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

ISIS very much wants all these borders to be erased.

Which is why they also refer to themselves simply as “the Islamic State,” or “the Caliphate.” Doesn’t make much sense to call yourself “in Iraq and Syria” when you believe you’re a country that transcends Iraq and Syria.

But even the “Islamic” part of their name is contentious.


Many in the Muslim world are even uncomfortable calling ISIS (ISIL) by their name, because they don’t want to give ISIS (ISIL) the Islamic legitimacy they so crave and claim. Weirdly, this has manifested itself in a preference for the group’s Arabic acronym, ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyya fi Iraq wa Sham. (The “sh” is a single letter in Arabic; transcribed, it has come over to us as Daesh.) Many in the Muslim world nevertheless insist on the term, principally because ISIS finds it so offensive that it has threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone who uses the term. (‘Daesh’ has a pejorative Arabic meaning too.) They are desperate for legitimacy, even though they don’t get any.

Every Muslim institution and organization I can think of has condemned the group, while the consensus of all of Islam’s scholars—including those who otherwise disagree with each other and would even refuse to speak to one another—is that the group has nothing to do with Islam. Indeed, some Muslim news outlets even refuse to show or reproduce the group’s flag, which includes the Islamic declaration of faith, because they find the use of Islamic language in this context to be nearly blasphemous. (I must admit that the sight of Islamic language on a terrorist movement’s flag makes me sick to my stomach.) Which gets us to the very point of the article: That Obama calls ISIL “violent extremists, radicals, and terrorists,” and refuses to call them Islamic terrorists, as so many of his Republican opponents insist and demand.

What gives?

Obama’s right on this one

President Obama’s right not to call ISIS—or, as he prefers, ISIL—“Islamic.” This drives many right-wing commentators nearly nuts, as they think Obama’s conceding to some kind of political correctness and too afraid and effete to admit the truth: That we’re at war with Islam. Which, of course, we’re not.

Even George W. Bush made that same point.

Moreover, President Obama’s logic is sound. His first responsibility is to keep Americans safe, and that includes those who defend the country. In contrast to the previous administration, which put American soldiers in harm’s way with little thought for why they were fighting, and what their goals should be, and how they might achieve them, President Obama has been extremely reticent to commit substantial numbers of ground troops to wars that have no clear exit strategy.

He can however get away with this because he’s worked hard to build alliances and partnerships with other countries who bear some of the burden, put their own troops into the fight, and help us in the common war against ISIS.

Many of these partners are Muslim, if they do not explicitly consider themselves Islamic.

It makes absolutely no sense to insult your allies by insisting on a term—what you are going to call your enemy is less important than whether you’ve got the ability to fight him. The overwhelming majority of Muslims detest, denounce and feel themselves threatened by ISIS and its subsidiaries and partners. Most of the people on the ground fighting ISIS are Muslim. This is not Nazi Germany, where a state was co-opted by an extremist fascist movement, and willingly followed along. ISIS only has a state because Iraq’s and Syria’s governments lost control of their territory.

In no place have Muslims voted for ISIS. In no places would they. While some have joined them—and this is a serious problem, of course—let us not forget that these criminals are greatly outweighed by the huge number going in the other direction, risking life and limb to get the hell out and away. Not only is it inaccurate and misleading to pretend that ISIS represents either Islam or any significant percentage of Muslims, it’s simply bad strategy, harms our national security, and leaves us more likely to be fighting solo. Whereas the more countries that fight with us, the more secure we are. While it might be tempting for some folks to give into a civilizational narrative, the reality is, the more you understand the region, the less you find such reasoning compelling. In fact you’d find it dangerous.