ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, Daesh: what’s in a name?

By December 3, 2015

Int’l (MNN/CU) — The group of Muslims attempting to set up an Islamic caliphate–a state where Islam rules over all lives–is known in the U.S. most often as ISIS. But Dr. Martin Spence, Cornerstone University Associate Professor of History, sees a world of differences in the names used to describe the terror group that kills Christians in ways experienced by the early Christian church.

While Islamic State is a name that is bandied about, it’s a term that politicians and diplomats steer clear of, Spence says.

“The claim to be a state is a place with government, borders, systems of laws, and that has international recognition. It can participate in diplomacy and make deals and such,” he explains.

Although Islamic State has internal laws and brutal justice for those who break them, they
don’t actually fit the definition of a state.

islamic state


“And of course ISIS has carved this territory out of two existing states: Iraq and Syria,” Spence says. “Their claim to be a state is a controversial one because no one recognizes it as one.”

While politicians bristle when ISIS is called Islamic State, the term “ISIL” irritates the indigenous people who are trying to keep ISIS out of their back yard.

While the term “Islamic State” has political ramifications, the terms “ISIS” and “ISIL” are more geographic in nature.

“The Levant is the term for the Eastern part of the Mediterranean, and it’s been called that since Roman times,” Spence said. The Levant is bigger than the actual area that ISIS currently controls, making their use of the term unnerving to neighboring states.

“It is basically stretching down from northern Syria, down through Lebanon, Israel, down to the Sinai peninsula in Egypt,” he said.

The Levant is a much broader area than is actually controlled by ISIS, but the term
“ISIS” is also deceptive.

While ISIS is an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and ISIS is currently occupying portions of Iraq and Syria, it may refer to an antiquated Syria. The Al-Sham or Greater Syria was an Ottoman province that covered an area similar in scope to the Levant. The ISIS name was first given to the group, which was among the insurgents who fought U.S. forces in Iraq, calling themselves Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) until their invasion of Syria.

For a time, ISIS organizers were calling themselves Daesh, a term picked up by John Kerry and the U.S. State Department but abandoned by ISIS.

“[Daesh] is a transliteration of the Arabic of rendering of the term ISIS, basically. If you take the letters [of ISIS] and play them out in Arabic, you get that name,” Spence said. “ISIS is now vehemently opposed to use of the name because there is a pun you can do with the word ‘Daesh.’ Depending on how you conjugate it within grammatical terms, it can sound something like, ‘One who tramples on people.’”

Because “Daesh” makes no insinuations of the terrorists’ land holdings, or statehood, it has become a favorite term among politicians. “It’s partly a way of insulting them,” Spence says.

Spence acknowledges the evil done by ISIS and doubts “Daesh” would have an impact one way or the other on the terrorists, but he thinks Christians should hold to a higher standard.

“As a Historian and as a Christian, a guiding principle is…we should respect the way people self identify. If people don’t use a term for themselves, it is wrong for us to put a label on them,” he says. “It seems more ‘Christian’ to use the term they prefer, because, whether we find it counter-intuitive or not, ISIS, as with all atrocious regimes in history, [the people] are made in the image of God. They are taken by sin, by evil, and their acts are horrific and horrendous and deserve condemnation. However, every person has dignity, even in the midst of their evil acts.”

Extending respect to enemies is important to Christians, because insulting them is counter to the effort of winning them over to the message of love in Jesus Christ.

“There is no different Gospel in peace and wartime. There is no different Gospel other than that Jesus Christ has died to pay the penalty and [to] release us from the power of sin, that He’s risen to give us new life, and that He’s coming again to restore creation, to make all things right,” says Spence.

Everyone, not just ISIS, is alienated from God and subject to death until they are liberated by the cross of Christ.

Spence suggests that Christians pray, not just for the hostages taken by ISIS, and for the victims of their attacks, but for the lost who are deceived in thinking their path to heaven includes an AK-47 or a suicide belt.

“The prayer for ISIS is the same as the prayer for the world: that the love and forgiveness of Christ, in some way, is ministered to them,” concludes Spence. “ISIS in some way just reminds us of the brokenness of the world. But they do it in a radical, concentrated form that shocks us.”




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