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Playing Name Games Won’t Make the Islamic State Go Away

ISIS? ISIL? The Islamic State? Or simply IS? Media organizations, governments, and international groups alike are having a hard time figuring out what to call the brutal Islamic militant group now controlling large portions of Syria and Iraq. In June, the Sunni terrorist organization announced that it had successfully established a caliphate and should therefore ...

MOHAMMED WESAM/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMMED WESAM/AFP/Getty Images

ISIS? ISIL? The Islamic State? Or simply IS? Media organizations, governments, and international groups alike are having a hard time figuring out what to call the brutal Islamic militant group now controlling large portions of Syria and Iraq.

In June, the Sunni terrorist organization announced that it had successfully established a caliphate and should therefore be called the "Islamic State." But by then it was already best known as ISIS and journalists feared that using the new name could confuse people. (Besides, the abbreviation, IS, risks sounding just like an emphatic present tense verb.)

More significantly, some people, including New York Times editors, worried that calling it "the Islamic State" might confer legitimacy on the group by suggesting that it’s actually a functioning and diplomatically recognized state instead of a brutal militant organization. So the Times has stuck with ISIS, while President Barack Obama and his State Department prefer ISIL, the "L" standing for "the Levant."

Others have objected to the "Islamic" part of the group’s name. Egypt’s leading Islamic institution, Dar al-Ifta, began a campaign to call the group "al Qaeda Separatists" — QS, or QSIS for short. That name would avoid the impression that the militants speak for the Muslim world, the Islamic authority reasoned. But with several other names already entrenched, it may be tough for this new one to gain much ground.

It’s not the first group with revolutionary politics or a propensity for extreme violence to spark a naming debate. From the days when the Federalist backers of the American Constitution branded their opponents "Anti-Federalists," up to the battle over terms such as the "Jewish State" and "Occupied Palestine," it’s been an open question whether refusing to call one’s opponents by their chosen name actually undermines them.

The nation called both Myanmar and Burma is another moniker pickle. When the country’s repressive military dictatorship officially changed the name to Myanmar in 1989, the United States and many other countries signaled their rejection of the junta-led government by continuing to call the country Burma.

Since the government began democratic reforms three years ago, countries re-establishing relations with the country have faced the problem of whether to start calling it "Myanmar." Hillary Clinton dodged the issue during her 2011 visit as secretary of state by saying "this country." A year later, Obama opted to use "Myanmar" in a meeting with President Thein Sein as a "diplomatic courtesy." But the U.S. government’s official name for the country is still "Burma," and there would need to be breakthroughs on various lingering issues before many human rights groups and pro-democracy media outlets would switch to "Myanmar."

First is the matter of ethnic minority persecution — ironic given that the regime’s rationale for changing its name in the first place was that "Burma" favored the country’s ethnic Burman majority. (The argument falls flat given that "Myanmar" actually has similar ethnic majority connotations.)

Another irony: The government itself seeks to discredit the status of a Muslim minority group in its western Rakhine state by refusing to use the name the group prefers, Rohingya. Instead, the government pretends that the Rohingya are nonindigenous intruders from Bangladesh, and therefore calls them "Bengalis."

The United States took a similar approach toward its Cold War opponents. Following the 1949 communist victory in the long-running Chinese civil war, the Nationalists exiled to Taiwan continued to claim that they governed "the Republic of China" and were China’s only legitimate government. The United States readily accepted the Nationalists’ claim, denying the authority of the communist People’s Republic of China. For years, U.S. presidents and news outlets such as the New York Times referred to the mainland primarily as "Communist China" or "Red China," emphasizing the country’s offensive political system over its authority as a state.

The United States used this weak but politically successful line of reasoning to argue that the Nationalist government, rather than the People’s Republic, should represent China at the United Nations. Because both governments claimed authority, the U.N. could only acknowledge one of them, the reasoning went. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the United States allowed the mainland government to replace Taiwan on the U.N. Security Council, established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, and started referring to the country as such.

Unwillingness to publicly admit the advances of communism also affected the way Americans talked about the Soviet Union. In the 1950s, government statements and news reports often referred to "Soviet Russia" or "Red Russia" rather than the "Soviet Union" or the "U.S.S.R." That approach minimized Soviet territorial claims over Eastern Europe and Central Asia even as President Eisenhower warned of expanding Soviet control. By the end of the decade, though, "the Soviet Union" had become the more common choice, perhaps reflecting the reality setting in that the communist bloc wasn’t dissipating anytime soon.

Later, during the Vietnam War, U.S. officials and even many news outlets called the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon not only "the government of South Vietnam" but also "the government of Vietnam" — its official name for itself, but also one that implicitly denied the legitimacy of North Vietnam’s communist government.

That practice of course ended when North Vietnam overthrew the southern government. But like the Soviet Union, other regimes and movements with longevity often eventually get the name they want.

It’s strange to recall that back in 2010, journalists and other observers usually referred to the Tea Party as "the group that calls itself the Tea Party." This was a way both for the skeptical to question whether the populist group was really an heir to the Boston Harbor tradition, and for journalists to distance themselves from that debate. It’s a sign of the group’s success, for better or for worse, that it’s now just called "the Tea Party."

In a recent article about the name Thailand’s military government has chosen for itself, the Singapore daily Straits Times drew on the same formula to distance itself from the ruling generals. "The National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta calls itself, promises to install an interim civilian government by September," the article says. But history suggests that if the regime sticks around, practicality and clarity eventually will demand that people simply call it by its chosen name, or appropriate abbreviation.

This is what seems to be happening with the Islamic State — which is unfortunate, given what it says about the group’s continuing power. Early last month, the AP told Poynter:

Our approach is to refer to them on first reference simply as "Islamic militants," "jihadi fighters," "the leading Islamic militant group fighting in Iraq (Syria), etc." On second reference, something like "the group, which calls itself the Islamic State," with "group" helping to make clear that it is not an internationally recognized state.

But while still adhering loosely to those guidelines, the AP now feels the need to specify even on first reference that it’s talking about "Islamic State militants" or "Islamic State extremists."

One analyst recently told VICE, "The reality is that its name is IS — Islamic State. It’s better to confront this reality rather than try to hide it and call it by another name." Let’s just hope that, unlike the United States’ former communist opponents, the Islamic State won’t last long.

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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