What’s in a name?
Speaking from the Oval Office, President Barack Obama addressed the nation: “We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us. Our success won’t depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values or giving into fear. That’s what groups like ISIL are hoping for.”
President Obama has consistently used the acronym ISIL, or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, to describe the self-styled Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. His choice of terminology is peculiar because it contradicts the popular and conventionally accepted name, ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Reflecting the public preference, news organizations use the term ISIS almost exclusively. Political commentator for NBC, Chuck Todd, admits that, “Obviously, we refer to it at NBC News as ISIS.”
The head, or caliph, of the Islamic State is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He and his subordinates believe that their territory extends far beyond the towns and villages in Iraq and Syria, and that all Muslims should live under a single banner practicing sharia law.
Defending the Use of “ISIL”
Those defending Obama’s preference for ISIL claim that he is simply using the correct translation of the Arabic name for the terrorist movement. Michelle Mark of “International Business Times,” commends Obama for his careful choice of language: “Furthermore, the group’s name in Arabic is al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, and ‘Levant’ is sometimes argued to be the more accurate translation for ‘al-Sham.’”
Others believe that the President’s usage of ISIL is purely for geographic precision. Bill Palmer of “Daily News Bin” says that, “If a President mistakenly thought that these terrorists were limited to just Iraq and Syria, he would have a hard time leading the fight to eradicate it.” Indeed, he compares using the term ISIS to, “…referring to both Dakotas combined,” as South Dakota.
A Calculated (mis)Step
However, other observers feel that Obama is empowering America’s enemy in the Middle East by using the term ISIL. Tufts University professor of religion Kenneth Garden believes that Obama’s use of the terrorist group’s favored name is “an own-goal” for the US.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh argues that Obama’s use of ISIL is meant to stress the territory in the Levant, which includes Israel. On his radio talk show, Limbaugh said, “It would include Israel, which, to these people [democrats], Israel is a fraud. Israel doesn’t deserve to be there. That’s all Palestine and that’s what I think is behind the pronunciation, this insistence that it be called ISIL.”
Obama may be using the term ISIL not to weaken the enemy, but to reinforce his own foreign policy. By refusing to acknowledge Syria in the title of the self-professed caliphate, Obama is refusing to involve significant US forces within this state.
Todd agrees: “But since the Obama administration has shown much more willingness to attack ISIS in Iraq than they have to attack them in Syria, they seem to have decided it is in their best interest to leave the ‘S’ out of the name.”
However, this does not mean that Islamic State fighters are absent from Syria. While recent gains for the Iraqi government have been achieved by taking back Fallujah and other targets, fighting in the Syrian province of Raqqa has been fierce as the Russian-backed forces of Bashar Assad fight “seesaw battles” where victories are difficult to sustain.
Assuredly, President Obama is proud of his policy to take on the Islamic State without fully committing US military forces. During the 2015 State of the Union Address, he said, “In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.”
The President has not wavered in his partiality for the term, using ISIL nine times in the 2016 State of the Union.
Obama is not alone in his use of the ISIL moniker, though. A 2014 email from Hillary Clinton demonstrates her preference for this acronym, as well. Clinton wrote, “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”
Consequently, political language and the recognition of state entities has always been used as a tool to gain leverage in foreign affairs. As “Foreign Policy” writer Joshua Keating explains, President Woodrow Wilson used the powers of nonrecognition to challenge the legitimacy of dictators like Mexico’s Victoriana Huerta, and the US refused to recognize the communist government in Beijing as the legitimate state authority in China.
Even more routine language carries political implications. Keating says that, “U.S. officials are often reluctant to formally describe the takeover of a foreign country as a ‘coup’ because of both the consequences of cutting off aid and the fact that to resume aid, the State Department is required to certify that democratic governance has been restored.”
Certainly, the terminology used to describe the self-styled Caliphate, with its capital in Mosul, is significant. The chosen language defines the boundaries of the conflict, the goals of the movement, and the potential victims affected by it. Whatever President Obama or Secretary Clinton’s intentions may be, by choosing to go against the mainstream with the use of the name ISIL, they are stating a politically-driven message. Interpretations may vary as to the exact meaning of this message.