Words matter. There are still veterans of the Second World War with us in Britain who remember how Churchill deliberately mispronounced the word ‘Nazi’ in his wartime broadcasts. Lengthening the ‘a’ sound until it came across as fully sinister, he managed to make the threat literally sound as deadly and as contemptible as it was.
So why in the Britain of 2015 are we using the term ISIS for the sadistic death cult already in control of much of Syria, Iraq, and pockets of the North African coast? Standing for ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’, the name grants their orgy of persecution and murder exactly the dignity they should be denied: that of being a state, and that of being Islam.
There is a better alternative. In the Middle East itself, the man in the street doesn’t say ‘ISIS’ but ‘Daesh’. Many of my partners in the new Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the European Parliament do the same. I think they’re on to something.
People familiar with Arabic say that ‘Daesh’ in that language, naming the group we call ISIS, makes them sound as fully despicable as they are. The word is a new one in Arabic, but without the utterly unwarranted sense of legitimacy ‘Islamic State’ gives these people.
Today the Prime Minister reminded our reluctant country that we are indeed at war with Islamist terrorism – that the horrors this al-Qaeda offshoot are inflicting overseas truly threaten us as well. He’s right. But let’s stop using their own term of choice.
We can stand with the man in the Arab Street who mocks and disparages Daesh by using the same word he does. We can unite with the resolve of those on the continent who oppose them as we do by using a term expressing moral contempt, not legal dignity.
Churchill only borrowed Hitler’s words to make clear the reality of the threat and the contempt in which we should hold its ideals. ‘ISIS’ makes a threat to life and liberty at home here in Britain sound like just another acronym from the world of international bureaucracies. Daesh makes this terrorist threat sound as loathsome and as real as it is. Words are no substitute for sharp swords when needed, but the first victory is in not describing the enemy as he would himself wish.