Needless Collateral Damage

by Institute for Science and International Security

September 2, 2014

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In recent months, many media organizations and nongovernmental organizations have used the acronym ISIS as a shortening for the name of the jihadist terrorist group named, in transliterated Arabic, the Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham.  The group announced in June that it was changing its name to the “Islamic State.” But the widespread, persistent use of the acronym ISIS to refer to this terrorist organization continues to cause considerable confusion and is causing reputational harm to the many organizations and entities that also use this acronym. The Institute for Science and International Security, a non-profit institution which has used the acronym ISIS since 1993, would like to urge media and foreign policy analysts to no longer refer to Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham by the name “ISIS” but to choose another alternative.

The translation of the group’s name as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been subject to considerable debate itself, as the term “al-Sham” is difficult to translate into English and there is no agreement among experts as to its geographical scope. However, both U.S. and U.N. officials have consistently referred to the group using the alternate translation, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It is by this name that the group was sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council, and it is the alias that has supplanted “al-Qa’ida in Iraq” on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list. This list also contains alternate names of the organization: ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-‘Iraq wa-sh-Sham, Dawla al Islamiya, or Daesh. The last name is also transliterated in English as Daaish. As noted above, the group itself announced that it was changing its name to the “Islamic State” or “IS.”

While consistent reporting and due diligence are largely a matter of editorial decisions, it is the clarity of the public debate in regard to other issues with which the Institute for Science and International Security is concerned. As a non-profit, non-partisan institution dedicated to informing the public about science and policy issues affecting international security, we are worried that the confusion surrounding the acronym “ISIS” can have detrimental effects on the public discourse surrounding our primary area of focus - nuclear non-proliferation. However, as media headlines describe the atrocities committed by the Islamic State using the acronym “ISIS”, our and others’ credibility is undermined among the public that is also uninformed about our and others’ organizations.  It is not only the Institute for Science and International Security that has felt the impact of recent headlines.  A cursory search using the term ISIS revealed 65 organizations and companies that also use “ISIS” in their name (see appendix).

The use of ISIS to describe a murderous anti-feminine terrorist organization is incongruous when considering that Isis is an Egyptian goddess, whose mythology includes motherhood and bringing life from death. In fact, it was this latter Isis myth that motivated the founders of this ISIS to select the name for an organization centered on preventing nuclear war, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, and eventually achieving nuclear disarmament.

Some have suggested that we should change our name and no longer use ISIS.  In July, a company which created a mobile wallet app announced that it was changing its name because of the inadvertent confusion with the terrorist organization. We recognize that each group needs to make decisions protecting its goals.  However, we reject the notion that changing our name is the solution to the problem. Given the many organizations and companies that also use the name ISIS, is it reasonable that we suffer harm because media organizations and NGOs have made an unfortunate choice, one not made by the U.S. government, the United Nations, and many others?

The confusion over the use of the acronym ISIS for a terrorist organization, and its unintended consequences, is avoidable. For this reason, we urge the media and other NGOs to stop using ISIS to refer to a terrorist group and hasten the transition to using the group’s current name, the Islamic State (IS), or any of the alternate names mentioned above.

The appendix in the PDF document contains the list of organizations using the acronym ISIS.

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