Is there a right and wrong way to describe depravity? When a terrorist organization has seized control over millions of people and chunks of countries, when it has killed thousands and drawn world powers into war, is what we call the group really all that important? When that organization calls itself “the Islamic State,” and it takes inspiration from actual Islamic theology and administers actual territory, why not refer to it as such? What’s the use of opting instead, as many government officials have, for derogatory acronyms like the Arabic Daesh, or taunts like the “Un-Islamic Non-State”?
“We have a pretty straightforward policy here,” Michael Slackman, the international managing editor for The New York Times, told The Washington Post, in explaining why his paper goes with the term Islamic State. “We use the name that individuals and organizations select for themselves,” and then try to contextualize it. (Some English-language news outlets add context with qualifiers such as the self-styled Islamic State or the Islamic State group; others stick to relatively anodyne acronyms like ISIS or IS. The Atlantic typically uses “Islamic State” or “ISIS” interchangeably.)
This logic applies not just to the media, but to academia, according to Will McCants, the author of The ISIS Apocalypse. “I understand why political leaders would want to choose [which name to use],” he told the Post. “I don’t understand the pressure for academics to follow suit. It’s one thing for politicians to shape perception. I’m looking for a more neutral way to describe an organization.” The term “Islamic State,” he added, is “the one consistent part of their name, which has changed over the years. I chose not to confuse people.”
Last week, in a talk at the Human Rights Foundation’s Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway, the Nigerian playwright and poet Wole Soyinka condemned this logic. And his reasoning is worth considering: After all, the 81-year-old Nobel laureate intimately understands the potency of language. He has spent his career deploying words against kleptocrats and dictators, a practice that earned him 22 months in solitary confinement in Nigeria and later a death sentence in absentia. “Art should expose, reflect, indeed magnify the decadent, rotten underbelly of a society that has lost its direction,” he wrote in 1977. In 2016, he sees that rotten underbelly stretching roughly from Raqqa in Syria, which ISIS claims as its capital, to the Sambisa Forest in Nigeria, where the group’s affiliate Boko Haram is active.
In Oslo, Soyinka’s message was to not underestimate the force of semantics. “Language is part of the armory of human resistance,” he said. “Rejection of the self-ascribed goals of an enemy is a critical part of the defense mechanism of the assaulted. Whenever an unconscionable claim is denied, rejected, openly derided, it erodes the very base of the aggressor’s self-esteem.”
Today’s preeminent aggressor is not “Islamic.” It’s more like an “Anti-Islamic Murder Incorporated” whose existence and activities have not been endorsed by a single internationally recognized Islamic nation, argued Soyinka, who grew up in a Christian household but later embraced elements of traditional Yoruba spirituality.
Nor is the enemy a state. It’s more like “a sadistic, morbidity-obsessed, irredentist group [that] indulges itself in destabilizing states—genuine states, that is—and extinguishing peoples, the Yazidis [in Iraq] most notoriously.” And yet, he continued, “we insist on respectfully referring to them as a state. Such proponents of spurious egalitarianism fail a crucial test of responsibility to truth and language. Yes, there’s freedom of expression, but there’s also freedom of choice of expression. And that does not cost much.”
Soyinka criticized publications for their promiscuous use of the name Islamic State. “Those who live directly under the sword [of the group in Syria and Iraq] have no choice: They must call them by the name they choose for themselves. But what of the rest of us?” he asked. The media’s normalization of the term, he charged, is “an act of insidious cooperation with the agenda of unlimited violence.”
Journalists are deluding themselves if they think they’re being impartial in calling the organization by its self-proclaimed name, Soyinka told me after his speech. “Language is hardly ever neutral. … [Journalists] have no choice but to make a choice.”
And they’re deluding themselves if they believe they’re merely documenting the conflict between the organization and its opponents, rather than being engaged in it. Their stake in that conflict goes beyond the beheadings of journalists like James Foley and Steven Sotloff. “Far and above any other enemy I have ever recognized, [groups like ISIS and Boko Haram represent] something totally deleterious to humanity,” said Soyinka. “How do you fight such enemies except with everything you have, including language?”
For Soyinka, the fight is urgent and existential. He believes twin threats—the depredations of Boko Haram and the corruption that corroded the Nigerian state under former President Goodluck Jonathan—have placed his country in a “precarious” situation. They are imperiling a nation that, as a result of British colonialism, is a frayed “quiltwork of various nationalities, interests, loyalties. Many Nigerians do not know and are not interested in what is known as ‘Nigeria,’” he said.
It’s not as if Soyinka is an ardent Nigerian nationalist. “I hate the word ‘patriotic,’” he told me. “I just believe in solidarity with the human beings with whom I live.” He’s said in the past that he considers himself a Yoruba before he’s a Nigerian. But in recent years, he’s become preoccupied with borders and the integrity of states. In a BBC lecture in 2004 on the changing nature of collective fear, he noted that during the Cold War, people tended to worry about nuclear war between superpowers. These days, he said, “the fear is one of furtive, invisible power, the power of the quasi-state, that entity that lays no claim to any physical boundaries, flies no national flag, is unlisted in any international associations, and acts every bit as mad as the M.A.D. gospel of annihilation that was so calmly annunciated by the superpowers” during the Cold War.
This appears to be why Soyinka is so offended by descriptions of ISIS as a state. States are imperfect entities, as Soyinka is aware from personal experience, but they are how humanity has chosen to organize itself in modern times. For the sake of human progress, in his view, nihilistic policies of crucifixion, mass rape, public beheadings, and the like by enemies of the world order must not be characterized as acts of state.
Soyinka is essentially calling for a new, more aggressive language for a new age of fear. “We must take on the duty of telling the enemy openly: It is not spiritual fulfillment that you seek, but power. Control. Power in its crudest form,” he said in a 2014 speech. “At this moment in the lives of communities across the globe, taking note of the havoc wreaked daily by the doctrine of religious impunity, there is far too much appeasement and toleration in the language we bring to each confrontation. There comes a time when our humanity accepts that there must be an end to an attitude that is best captured in that Yoruba expression: F’itiju k’arun. Literally that means, ‘contracting a disease through politeness.’”
Soyinka isn’t just contributing an argument to the cluttered debate over what to call ISIS. He’s making a case for the primacy of words, the only weapon most people have against the group. To work with language, he contends, is to make choices. And referring to an organization by its preferred name is a choice, not some passive, neutral alternative.
It’s a choice, moreover, that journalists don’t always make, despite their claims to calling things as they are. In the U.S. press, for example, North Korea is not known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, perhaps in part because it is the antithesis of a democratic republic. Nigeria’s terrorist menace is referred to as Boko Haram, a local name often translated as “Western education is forbidden,” rather than the extravagant titles it has bestowed on itself, including the “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad” and the “West Africa Province [of the Islamic State].”
If journalists feel fidelity to language and truth, Soyinka suggests, they should recognize that while use of the term “Islamic State” brings clarity to the entity being discussed, it breeds confusion about the meaning of the term’s constituent parts: “Islamic” and “state.” They should recognize that while the group’s official name is one truth, its distortion of mainstream interpretations of Islam and its subversion of states are truths as well. They should recognize that politicians aren’t the only ones in the business of shaping public perception.
This reporting was made possible in part with the support of the Human Rights Foundation.