Rather than tackle an intractable issue and mortal enemy, our superficial politicians are quibbling over the language we use in describing it
When is the Islamic State in Syria – ISIS – not the Islamic State in Syria?
Apparently the answer to this question is: since a couple of days ago, when the hive mind of lazy politician groupthink decided that we must bend and warp journalistic practice – and the English language itself – in order to make it clearer that the majority of us do not condone the activities of that brutal, backward-looking group of primitive fundamentalists.
My attention has been elsewhere lately – freshly returned from a relaxing and eventful trip to Greece but otherwise more focused on domestic than foreign affairs. So it was surprising to find my attention drawn back by the furious row between the government and the BBC over exactly how the public service broadcaster should refer to the nascent medieval kingdom seeking to establish itself in the middle east.
The Spectator is – quite rightly – having none of it:
‘Isis’ is an acronym of Islamic State in Syria. ‘Isil’ – an acronym of Islamic State in the Levant. Isil is the better translation of the group’s Arabic name al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham – where ‘Sham’ represents greater Syria or ‘the Levant’ as we would say in English.
As for ‘Daesh’, it has the small propaganda advantage of reminding Arabic speakers of Daes (‘one who crushes something underfoot’) and Dahes (‘one who sows discord’). But beyond that childish word association it is no help at all, for ‘Daesh’ is just the Arabic abbreviation of al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham – or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
All the euphemisms politicians demand we must use to avoid calling Islamic State ‘Islamic State’ therefore call Islamic State ‘Islamic State’. How can they not, for that is its name? And it is no more up to outsiders to change a group’s name than it is up to you to change the names of your acquaintances. Assuming the politicians know what they are doing, they must believe that many voters will not know what ‘Isil’ and ‘Isis’ stand for, or only Arabic speakers will understand the meaning of ‘Daesh’. In other words, they are relying on ignorance and hoping to foster ignorance too.
Never mind the obvious undesirability of government telling the state-owned broadcaster what to report and how to report it – thus proving the central argument against government ownership of the media. Of far more concern is the fact that politicians – specifically our current generation of uncharismatic, uninspiring, superficial leaders – seem to believe that expending time and energy arguing about what to call the Islamic State is more important than doing anything about ISIS in the real world.
Journalists and newspapers call this group the Islamic State because that happens to be their name. That tends to be how journalism works. As a general rule, we do not unilaterally change the name of an established group on a whim according to whether or not we happen to approve of their activities. Thus Argentina did not become the Tango Fascist Junta when Britain expelled their attempted occupation of the Falkland islands in 1982. Most of us (I had not yet been born) rightly opposed the Argentine invasion at the time, but we remained capable of abhorring Argentina’s despicable actions without changing our name for their country in an added fit of pique.
Similarly, at no time did we feel any need to show our disapproval of the IRA by renaming them the Bad Men’s Pipebomb Society, because it was obvious to every sane person that blowing up soldiers, civilians, women, children and animals in a campaign of terror was a bad thing to do without needing to have it reinforced by the name. No doubt the vast majority of Irish people were highly incensed and offended that a group calling itself the Irish Republican Army was marauding around Britain setting off bombs in the name of Ireland, but again that was not considered sufficient reason to change their universally recognised and understood moniker.
But the impulse to virtue-signal our disapproval of ISIS by changing our name for them is not entirely new. We observed a similar motive at play in the early 2000s when it became fashionable to stop talking about “suicide bombers” and refer instead to “homicide bombers” – emphasising the murderous aspect over the suicide of the perpetrator. Of course, this also had the effect of rendering the term effectively meaningless – every successful bomber is by definition a homicide bomber because they seek to kill people – as it stripped away the one aspect that makes suicide bombing unique, the fact that the perpetrator commits the act with the full intention of dying in the explosion.
The drive to make “homicide bombing” enter the public discourse was, as I recall, the result of cheerleading from the right-wing American press, specifically outlets such as Fox News. At that time (how things have changed), one of the primary victims of suicide bomb attacks was the state of Israel, and it was felt that making reference to the suicide of the bomber when reporting on the attacks was giving undue sympathy to the Palestinian cause. Far better to show support for Israel by focusing on the deaths of innocent Israelis with the term “homicide bombing”, went this line of argument, even though the precise nature of these awful attacks was then lost in the process of reporting them.
And on a smaller scale – interesting that both examples originate from the American Right while the ISIS/Daesh controversy is similarly led by British Conservatives – is the Republican Party’s decision to start calling the Democratic Party the “Democrat Party” instead. This change in terminology also came about in the early 2000s and is now widely used even among many Democratic Party supporters. Why? Because Republicans felt that the Democrats were unfairly appropriating a word with positive and noble connotations – “democratic” – in their party’s name, and didn’t want them to continue enjoying this ‘unfair’ advantage. You might think that the difference between “Democratic” and “Democrat” is slight, but the GOP clearly felt that there were enough swing votes in it to justify the effort.
What do all of these examples have in common? They are all irredeemably stupid and largely failed attempts by people high on moralising and low on intelligence to make every single use of language a value judgement on the person, group or activity being described. These people – from the airheads at Fox News who think that talk of suicide bombers displays too much compassion for the terrorist to the dilettante lightweights at the top of the Conservative Party – lack the intellectual firepower to deal with the actual issues at hand – the middle east peace process, the Northern Irish Troubles or Islamic fundamentalism – and so they content themselves with strutting around on television, policing the public discourse instead.
The BBC talks about the Islamic State because that is their name. It is not for David Cameron, the controller of the BBC News channel or anyone else to sit in judgement over whether that name is accurate – either in terms of whether ISIS is really a state (thankfully they are not) or really Islamic (more questionable). All the sound and fury of the past few days has only highlighted the desperate intellectual, moral and imaginative failings of our political leaders, people who aspire to be statesmen but who have absolutely no clue how to address the challenges of the modern world.
ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State. Call them what you want, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are winning, and we are losing.
Now let’s have an open, honest debate about that.
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