ISIS/ISIL. . .these terms, both standing for the recently christened (pun intended) Islamic State, have flooded the media for months, and have recently proved to be yet another source of controversy for the Obama administration within the conservative blogosphere.
The conspiracy theory, which has been circulating for the best part of two months but gained fresh fuel late last month in the form of a blog post from Lt. Col. Allen West (Ret.), is essentially this: That President Obama is using the term ISIL (The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) rather than ISIS (inaccurately translated by West and others as The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in a deliberate effort to legitimize the claims of the group to the entire region and more particularly deny the existence of the state of Israel.
On the very face of it, this seems to stretch plausibility. . .since when has using the proper name of a group denoted agreement with their claims? I and others whose attention is focused on the Middle East routinely reference Hizballah, the “Party of God”, without ever suspecting that we would be accused of believing that the terrorist group has anything to do with God. But while President Obama and those of his administration have done much that is worthy of criticism, this is one instance in which they simply can’t seem to catch a break.
You see, the conspiracy theory West and others have been promulgating relies upon one simple, easily-disproven premise. . .that the final “IS” in ISIS refers only to Iraq and Syria, not the broader region. The reality is more complex–and less conducive to the type of clickbait “journalism” so beloved of the blogosphere.
The Arabic name of the group is al-Dawla al-Islamiyyah fi al-Iraq w al-Sham, abbreviated in a derogatory manner by their Arab opponents as DAESH or occasionally DAIISH. But to our parsing of the name itself. . .”al-Dawla al-Islamiyyah” references “the Islamic State” and even someone with zero knowledge of Arabic can clearly see the reference to Iraq. The controversy arises when one comes to “al-Sham“, which Allen West would have you believe stands for “Syria”, the final “S” in “ISIS.”
However, it doesn’t–or at least not Syria in the way we think of it as Westerners today. The Arabic term for the nation of Syria–which itself only dates back to the French Mandate of 1920–is “al-Suriya“, not “al-Sham“, which refers rather to the area known historically as “Greater Syria”, a region stretching from the shores of the Mediterranean in the west to the banks of the Euphrates in the east, south to the border of the Arabian Desert, and north to the Taurus Mountains of modern-day Turkey.
An area long referred to in Western literature as–wait for it. . .the Levant. So you see, whether one uses ISIS–correctly defined as “The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham”–like much of the Western media, or the administration’s choice of ISIL, “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”, you are referencing precisely the same geographical area. An area which does, in fact, encompass the nation of Israel. . .what, you’re surprised that an Islamic terrorist group would refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Jewish state in their name? What rock have you been living under for the last six decades?
But as noted earlier, the use of the correct name for a group does not denote, to any rational person, agreement with the ideology expressed therein. And it would be dangerous in the extreme to minimize the Islamist goals by using, as West did in his piece, a mistranslated name which would suggest to the casual reader that the group’s ambitions are confined to the nations of Iraq and Syria.
In short, while ISIS and ISIL are functionally identical, “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” is the single most accurate pure English translation which can be used–and given the cluttering of search engine results for “ISIS” with everything from Egyptian goddesses to comic book characters–the most rational choice for the administration.
So enough with the magic secret squirrel “coded message to the Islamists” conspiracy nonsense. President Obama’s real message to ISIL is the one he’s broadcasting in the clear–the one that has already resulted in the beheading of two Americans.
It’s: “I have no strategy.”