“Daesh claims to be fighting for Islam but its actions are an insult to Islam,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said recently, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
It was a strange rhetorical choice. American officials have been referring to the Islamic State as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, since the group came out in April 2013.
But over the past month, Kerry and other Western officials have taken to using the Arabic acronym Daesh. Why? It’s a reaction to reports that Islamic State fanboys fume when people use the Arabic acronym for the group instead of its fuller name. It’s also an effort by Westerners to distinguish between Islam and the Islamic State. As French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius explained, “I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists.”
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made a similar argument using another version of the Islamic State’s acronym. “As Muslim leaders around the world have said, groups like ISIL – or Daesh — have nothing to do with Islam, and they certainly do not represent a state,” he said. “They should more fittingly be called the ‘Un-Islamic Non-State.’”
President Obama said the same: “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with verbally poking your enemy in the eye, especially when the enemy is awful and your words are accurate. But there are two problems with this strategy.
The first is what Harry Potter fans would recognize as the Voldemort Effect, wherein the books’ protagonists fearfully refer to the villain Voldemort as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to avoid attracting his attention. Refusing to say the name of the Islamic State does something similar by enhancing the allure of the Group-That-Must-Not-Be-Named in radical quarters.
Refusing to utter the Islamic State’s name also needlessly complicates the religious fight to discredit the organization. Muslims understandably feel that their religion is being hijacked. But there’s something odd about an American president or Secretary of State opining on what is and isn’t legitimately Islamic. Shouldn’t it go without saying that a murderous extremist group isn’t what Muslims are all about?
There is a place for Muslim apologetics — from Muslims. This is precisely what a group of prominent British figures did when they attempted to rebrand the Islamic State as “the Un-Islamic State.”
But when non-Muslim officials insert themselves into this debate, it sets a negative precedent. It lends itself easily to broader pronouncements on who the good, “moderate” Muslims are, in contrast to the “bad guys,” a category which presumably could include anyone who falls on the Islamist side of the spectrum, regardless of whether they’re actually “extreme.”
And when the West co-opts Muslim talking points about the “true” Islam, it makes it harder for Muslims in the Arab world to make the same claim. Western governments are widely loathed and lack credibility in the region, even when they take care to explain their policies. A 2006 study suggested Arab students’ views of American policy “worsened slightly” the longer they listened to U.S.-sponsored Radio Sawa and al-Hurra TV. When Western officials repeat religious criticisms of the Islamic State, they make it easier for the group’s sympathizers to dismiss the criticisms as mere imperial dictation.
Look, the impulse to join mainstream Muslims in their ideological fight against a common enemy comes from a good place. But non-Muslim officials would be better off not publicly involving themselves in the religious aspect of that fight or touting their attempts to do so in an effort to show solidarity with Muslims.
Aside from the ideological fight, there is also the matter of intellectual honesty. Insisting that the Islamic State has “nothing to do with Islam” is likely to strike Americans following the news as detached from reality. As former Bush administration official Elliot Abrams recently noted:
The people who are doing these things view themselves as good Muslims. That has to be addressed and explained. They’re doing it because of their religion. So you cannot then say, ‘No, no, you guys in ISIS, you guys in Al Qaeda, you don’t understand Islam the way I do.’ That’s not a sensible thing to say.
While religion isn’t always the best way to understand the motivations of ISIS and its followers, it is, at the very least, relevant. We may not think the followers of the Islamic State are motivated by true Islam (whatever that might be). But it matters that they are motivated by what they think is true Islam.