MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Throughout his speech Wednesday evening, President Barack Obama referred to the militant terror group as ISIL. But, often, the media refers to that same group as ISIS or the Islamic State.

Surveys have shown these names can cause confusion about the terrorist group that split off from al-Qaeda and has taken over large parts of Iraq and Syria.

So, Cindy from Eagan asked: Why do we call the same group different names?

“The whole acronym debate comes because we’re trying represent what is really an Arabic set of terms,” said Mark Berkson, a professor of religion at Hamline University.

The Arabic term is Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. Al-Dawla means state, Al-Islamiya means Islamic and al-Iraq means Iraq.

“The question is: What is that last part? What does al-Sham stand for?” Berkson said.

The ISIS camp thinks it’s Syria or greater Syria while the ISIL camp says it refers to the Levant, a larger geographic area that includes Syria, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and into parts of Turkey.

Early on, ISIS was the preferred term, but as the group has widened its threat, some have argued ISIL is a better representation of the terrorist group’s aspirations to take over the entire Muslim world.

“If you use just Iraq and Syria, you say that’s all they really want to do, create an Islamic state there,” Berkson said. “But the ultimate goal is much bigger than that.”

Some have suggested Obama use the term ISIL to avoid discussing Syria. But Berkson thinks that line of thinking is unfair.

“Really, it’s recognizing the threat, the fullness of it,” he said.

He believes many media organizations continue to use the term ISIS partly because it’s easier to say. He also says the initial goals of the group were simply to be a split from al-Qaeda in Iraq – or ISI – and that when Syria broke down, the group seized an opportunity there.

Ultimately, the name, he says, just stuck.

Now, the terrorist group wants to be called the Islamic State, suggesting even an even broader vision.

But, given the vast, vast majority of Muslims reject this group, some Muslim scholars have suggested not calling it an Islamic state at all. They say call them what they are: Al-Qaeda separatists in Iraq and Syria, or QSIS.

“The important thing to understand here is that this won’t become a widely used acronym, but that these words have important meaning, symbolic meaning,” Berkson said.

Heather Brown

Comments (10)