In the July 4 Spectator, Rod Liddle wrote a typically amusing little piece on the interminable row over what to call the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/Islamic State/Daesh. Advocates of the various names have highly suspicious reasons for doing so. President Obama refuses to use ISIS, because it would inevitably draw attention to the fact that the Syrian opposition his administration funded was largely assimilated into ISIS. Center-right establishment politicians prefer Daesh, arguing that the Islamic State is neither Islamic, nor a state.
What authority Tony Abbott or David Cameron has to adjudicate what’s authentically Islamic, we’ve yet to determine. So, for the sake of cogency, Liddle has thrown a fifth alternative into the mix: ‘Really Horrible People Who Have Nothing to do With Islam’. Though, understanding that it’s a bit of a mouthful, Liddle suggests that we stick with the Islamic State, rather than jumping through loops to protect Muslims’ feelings or defend the honor of the Islamic religion.
But that bombed, too, apparently. One Justin Marozzi wrote a letter to the editor of the Spectator (11 July) suggesting that we not use “Islamic State” in any way, shape, or form, and not for any theological or emotional reasons. Rather, because using that term would be to “run terrorist propaganda unchallenged.” Quite.
We can say pretty confidently that historians are going to look back at the Islamic State as an unambiguous evil the West belatedly, but rightly, vanquished. The prime ministers and presidents who championed its destruction will no doubt go down as wartime leaders, alongside Churchill and Roosevelt. What seems guaranteed to baffle future generations, however, is this huge commotion we’re hearing about what to call our enemy. “I don’t understand what the delay was all about,” they’ll say, “could they really have been waiting to settle on a name before they actually did anything?”
Look, obviously the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea isn’t democratic, a republic, or representative of the will of the Korean people. Calling North Korea the DPRK isn’t giving implicit support to Juche. It’s not legitimizing the Kim dynasty. DPRK is just a combination of sounds and/or letters we use to refer to that particular group and region during a speech act — a name, as it were.
Or, take the facsimile of a religious example. I’ve heard Christians say things like, “I prefer not to call the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) a ‘church’ because it’s not really a church at all. A church is a house of God, and God would never condone the things they say and do.” Well, sure, that’s fine for you. But it’s not as though any otherwise reasonable person is going to see the WBC congregants celebrating plane crashes or dead GIs and think, “Well, they’re a church, aren’t they? That must be what Jesus wants.” So, really, the only thing a refusal to call the WBC “a church” accomplishes is to distance ourselves as Christians from their lot. Again, a very good thing to do, but refusing to call them by their preferred name is probably the most ineffectual way to go about defining the gulf between us and them. I can’t think of anything less one could do — and if more Christians were outspokenly sharing the message of the Gospel, it wouldn’t even be necessary to do so. Actions always speak louder than words.
We know what ISIS believe, what they do, where they are, and what they want. For Pete’s sake, why waste another ounce of breath debating what proper nouns or acronyms best describe those who march under the black flag? Just send in the drones already.
Michael Warren Davis is an assistant editor at Quadrant