ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State: How To Name A Terrorist Group

As the U.S. prepares to escalate the conflict against the militants in Iraq and Syria, there's been renewed debate about what to call the group.
Posted at 8:29 PM, Sep 13, 2014

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: "In the same way that we are at war with Al-Qaeda and its affiliates around the globe, we are at war with ISIL."

Wait, who did we just declare war on?

As the Obama administration prepares to take on the Islamic militant group who has seized control of a large region in Syria and Iraq, the world's latest major terrorist threat is coming under renewed scrutiny — and with it, renewed debate about what the group's actual name is. (Video via NBC)

POLITICO'S HADAS GOLD: "The Washington Post uses Islamic State, which the group officially deemed themselves in June. Outlets that use ISIS, like The New York Times, fear that using Islamic State may cause confusion that the group is an established country. ... Here at Politico, we use ISIL, since that's what the White House and the United Nations call the group."

The militants are calling themselves the Islamic State, but many outlets including Newsy still refer to them by their previous name, ISIS. And the Obama administration isn't alone in using an even earlier acronym for the group, ISIL. So, who's right, and why all the confusion in the first place?

Let's start with the dueling acronyms, ISIS and ISIL. Those are both translations from the group's old Islamic name, which roughly translates to The Islamic State in Iraq and ... something.

The last word of the group's name, "al-Sham," is tricky to translate; it is sometimes used to refer to Syria, and other times references a wider geographic region encompassing Syria, Lebanon, and parts of Turkey and Jordan — this is known as Greater Syria, or the Levant. 

Absent a definitive translation, ISIL and ISIS are both equally valid and equally confusing acronyms. But the militants seemingly solved the problem back in June when they declared an Islamic caliphate in the region and shortened their name to the Islamic State. (Video via CNN)

At the time, a writer for The Poynter Institute noted using "Islamic State" presented a new problem for journalists: "whether to go along with the group’s rebranding efforts and potentially grant it undeserved legitimacy, or to keep using an acronym that’s familiar to readers but is arguably out-of-date."

The group's former names aren't much better. Although the White House vouches for ISIL, it's a bit cumbersome to drag around the word "Levant," which The New York Times defined in June as "a once-common term that now has something of an antique whiff about it, like 'the Orient.'"

ISIS, by contrast, is a much more popular name for the group. We refer to the group as ISIS because it's their most familiar title, and it avoids legitimizing the group as an Islamic state.

But using ISIS isn't without its downsides — in this case, a variety of established businesses which previously branded themselves "Isis" are now being forced to change their name or suffer association with a terrorist group.

ISIS MAG FOUNDER LINDA GRAHAM VIA RT"We've worked really hard, and so I said to my business partner, 'Ok, we have to make a change, we have to rebrand.'"

Not to mention the plight of Isis Martinez, who's started a petition on behalf of all women named Isis to ban the media from using their names in reference to a terrorist group.

Whatever we call them, the terrorist group is now at the forefront of geopolitics, and still poses a dire threat to the security of the Middle East. 

But it'd be nice to find some sort of consensus soon, lest we continue, in the words of Maureen Dowd, "to drop a bunch of 500-pound bombs on whatstheirname."

This video contains images from MapMaster / CC BY SA 3.0, NordNordWest / CC BY SA 3.0.