President Trump says 'ISIS' instead of 'ISIL': Does that matter?

In an executive memorandum signed Saturday, President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to the so-called Islamic State group as "ISIS," marking a departure from the previous administration. 

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
US President Donald Trump signs a memorandum to security services directing them to defeat the Islamic State in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on January 28, 2017.

What's in a name? When it comes to addressing the so-called Islamic State, it seems no one can agree. 

When President Donald Trump signed an executive memorandum on Saturday calling on the Pentagon to come up with a "comprehensive plan to defeat ISIS" within 30 days, it was his order's wording – rather than its content – that caught some observers' attention. 

"This is the plan to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, in other words, ISIS," Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. "I think it's going to be very successful."

It remains to be seen how exactly the Trump administration's plan will deviate from past US approaches to defeating the so-called Islamic State group. But in one way, the newly inaugurated president has already set himself apart from his predecessor: Since the start of his campaign, Trump has continually referred to the terrorist organization as "ISIS," rather than "ISIL," the acronym that former President Obama and the federal government have used since 2014.

The difference between "ISIS" and "ISIL" – short for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, a translation from Arabic – has been hotly debated by politicians, academics, and strategists around the world since the group's rise to international prominence during Obama's second term. Obama and others who use "ISIL" argue that it more accurately represents the group's stated goals, though some conservatives have speculated that Obama's use of "ISIL" may have been motivated by politics rather than a desire to be accurate. Meanwhile, others say that the federal government should use neither, as both terms legitimize the group and its vision.

In an interview last May, President Trump lamented the federal government's use of "ISIL," telling Bloomberg Politics: "The president of the United States always says 'ISIL.' Everyone else says 'ISIS.' And I actually think he does it to bother people." 

The US media has largely used ISIS, though standards vary among news organizations. In 2014, the Associated Press switched over to ISIL, explaining the decision in a blog post: 

In Arabic, the group is known as Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The term “al-Sham” refers to a region stretching from southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt (also including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan). The group’s stated goal is to restore an Islamic state, or caliphate, in this entire area.

The standard English term for this broad territory is “the Levant.” Therefore, AP’s translation of the group’s name is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

Weeks later, the group rebranded itself the "Islamic State," and the AP decided to drop "ISIL" and instead use phrases such as "the Islamic State group," reportedly to "avoid phrasing that sounds like they could be fighting for an internationally recognized state."

While most media organizations continue to use the more easily-recognized "ISIS" or the AP-friendly "Islamic State group," the federal government has stuck with ISIL, a decision that resulted in a number of explanatory theories. In 2014, NBC's Chuck Todd suggested that the president used ISIL as a way to avoid dealing with Syria: "The last 'S' stands for Syria. The last 'L' they don’t want to have stand for Syria." 

Rush Limbaugh has suggested that the term was "meant to delegitimize Israel," as "the Levant includes Israel.... It is meant to include Israel in the Levant, which would make it Palestine." And Glenn Beck has expressed similar concerns, arguing that to say "ISIL" is a "slap in the face" to Israel.

In September 2014, House Democrats decided after long debate to call the extremist group ISIL, in part because of ISIS's associations with the goddess Isis and the thousands of women who have been named after her. 

But some observers argue that politicians and the media shouldn't use either acronym.

"Whether referred to as ISIS, ISIL, or IS, all three names reflect aspirations that the United States and its allies unequivocally reject," wrote Zeba Khan in an op-ed for The Boston Globe. "By using the militants’ preferred names, the US government implicitly gives them legitimacy." 

Ms. Khan and others urge the US government to instead refer to the group as "Daesh," a term adopted in recent years by the leaders of a number of countries, including France, the UK, Australia, and Turkey, as well as former US Secretary of State John Kerry.

The word is an acronym of the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. But it also doubles as a play on words: depending on how it is conjugated in Arabic, it can mean anything from "to trample down and crush" to "a bigot who imposes his view on others," according to Khan. 

"So where the idea behind the names ISIS, ISIL, and the Islamic State is to evoke power and authentic religious authority, Daesh as a name undermines those goals in the ears of native Arabic speakers," she writes for CNN. "Daesh may technically just be the Arabic acronym for ISIL, but it is a name that actively undercuts the power these militants wish to convey to native speakers. And because each letter represents an Arabic word, it weakens the terrorists' ability to convey the narrative they want to non-Arabic-speaking audiences as well." 

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