What's in a Name? ISIS vs ISIL

Pro-ISIL demontrators in Mosul on Monday June 16, 2014 (via)

A handful of news outlets have attempted to explain the confusion surrounding the militant group currently terrorizing Iraq. If you're anything like me, you have no doubt found yourself asking who are ISIS and ISIL, are they the same organization, and why can’t the English speaking world agree on their name? If we can all agree that this militant group has violently taken over Mosul and other parts of the region, why can't we agree on their name?

The BBC offers perhaps the clearest explanation of the name debacle, highlighting that where things have fallen apart is in attempting to translate the Arabic word "al-Sham" into English. The full Arabic name of the group is "al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham," which has been translated by some as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and by others as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). You may also have seen the translation of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, which also uses the ISIS acronym. Further, al-Sham can also be understood to mean Greater Syria or even Damascus. 

The majority of outlets have taken to using the acronym ISIS, including the Washington Post and the New York Times. Yet, official statements coming from the U.S. government as well as the United Nations have specifically referred to the group as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. After President Obama's address last week there was a rise in the use of ISIL, yet still ISIS remains dominant.

So, what's in a name? Is this all a matter of semantics, or a preference in ease of name recognition? Arguably at this point most people know where Syria is, but how many could explain the Levant? Some have argued ISIS simply rolls off the tongue more easily, which to me seems the weakest of any argument out there.

For me, the real question here is whether there is a political reason to insist on ISIL over ISIS. Is there a statement to be made about the reach of the militant group by using the Levant over Syria? Is it an attempt to maintain a separation between the situations in Syria and Iraq? Such distinctions are rarely unintentional. To consider it simply semantics seems naive.

As this situation evolves and states decide whether to involve themselves in it, understanding how and why we talk about this group will become ever more crucial. The language we use will serve to highlight the frame with which we view the situation, and the options for action we believe to be available. I encourage us all to look beyond the semantics and search for the broader ramifications of our language choices.

Corrie is The Mantle's Managing Editor. You can email her at corrie [at] themantle.net.

Formerly The Mantle's International Affairs Editor, Corrie specializes in matters of civilian protection and human security - specifically the Responsibility to Protect - her writing tackles the complicated intersection of politics and humanity.

Follow her on Twitter @corrie_hulse