June 20, 2014

ISIS versus ISIL - what's in a name?

The term ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a common word in newsrooms and on news broadcasts over the past few weeks as the group it describes continues to challenge the Iraqi army as it moves toward Baghdad. Yet, when the U.S. government describes this group, they use the acronym ISIL, or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

What is the difference and which is correct?

Let's start with the actual name of the group. In Arabic, it is الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, or al-dawlat al-islamiyah fil-'iraq wal-sham. That translates to "the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham." Even the Arabic-language media uses an acronym* using the first letters of the Arabic words - داعش, or da'ish. It is the translation of the Arabic word al-Sham that becomes problematic.

Al-Sham can be translated in several ways, depending on context. It can mean the city of Damascus, the country of Syria or the area also known as "greater Syria" or the Levant. In the past, the Levant included the island of Cyprus and what are now the countries of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories (West Bank and the Gaza Strip), and part of southern Turkey.

Today, it is generally accepted as referring to the area that comprises the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Although the translation of al-Sham as "the Levant" (and thus ISIL) is technically more accurate, for the purposes of describing this group, I prefer to use the more generic "Syria" (and thus ISIS), since that appears to be everyone's focus at this time. That does not change the group's larger goal.

* Although acronyms are not as common in Arabic as they are in English, they do exist. The most common one in the media is HAMAS, an acronym for حركة المقاومة الاسلامية, harakat al-muqawamah al-islamiyah, or the Islamic Resistance Movement.