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.”