ISIS or ISIL? What’s in a name? A lot if you’re paying attention.

I was pleased last week to hear President Obama refer to the “Islamic State” entity in the Middle East as “ISIL.” Most official Obama Administration spokespersons and the US military use ISIL, but the American press refers to the group almost exclusively as “ISIS.” It might not seem important at first glance what one chooses to call the group, but in this case it is, and using ISIS has been a disservice to the news-consuming population.

I’ve noticed the difference since this group first became a subject of frequent news coverage a few months ago. I don’t regularly listen to the BBC but, since a couple stations here carry it, if I have the radio on in the background I’ll occasionally hear snippets of their news broadcasts.

The BBC has consistently (with a few exceptions) labelled this group ISIL (The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). US news outlets have just as consistently called it ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). More recently a lot of sources have abbreviated it to the more simple “The Islamic State.” Does any of this matter? Should it matter? Should you care?

The answer to those questions is “Yes.”

It’s clear why Americans have chosen ISIS. Besides the fact that “Iraq and Syria” are known entities to most Americans (even if most can’t find them on a map), the American media labors under the impression (which might actually be true) that Americans will only pay attention to things if they sound familiar or cool. Let’s face it: Iraq is certainly familiar, and with its association with an Egyptian goddess and a slew of other references, “ISIS” sounds kind of cool. The American media is probably also worried that Americans don’t know what “the Levant” is, which gives them another excuse to avoid the term.

The Levant. A historical space on the map.

The Levant. A historical space on the map.

So why did the BBC and most other sources (except when they’re being interviewed for the American press) settle on ISIL? Because, for one, that’s closer to what the group calls itself. But also because that full name — Iraq and the Levant — should carry more weight.

The name this entity has chosen for itself is, of course, in Arabic. Any translation into English will be imprecise, but most sources seem to agree that the Arabic لدولة الإسلامية‎ translates simply to “Islamic State.” The “in Iraq and the Levant” part came later: the group went by The Islamic State from its creation in 2006, often used this interchangeably with The Islamic State in Iraq (also ISI) through 2013 and then, after becoming involved in the Syrian civil war (and gaining control of territory), changed to The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in 2013. You’ll note that they never actually used the “in Iraq and Syria” formulation themselves.

If you’re scared of radical militant Islamic fundamentalists, ISIL should scare you a lot more than ISIS. ISIS sounds limited and contained: it’s just two little countries, after all, mostly desert and embroiled in debilitating civil conflicts. “Let them shoot it out among themselves and leave us out of it” would be the attitude among far too many Americans. And they allow themselves to enjoy this kind of ignorance because the press feeds them ISIS and they don’t stop to worry about that “L” in ISIL.

It’s exactly that Levant that matters, and why it was so encouraging to hear the President use ISIL and highlight that context.

The Levant is a term for an entire region. It’s not just “Syria.” The Levant is a somewhat fuzzy term (I’m sticking to a simplified consensus definition here), but it refers generally to the area shown on the two maps I’ve included with this post. It’s closely analogous to what the British referred to for a long time as “the Near East” (some still do) and covers a large portion of what Americans think of as “the Middle East” today. In political terms, it’s an area roughly bounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Turkey to the north, the interior deserts of modern Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia to the east, and Egypt to the south. It encompasses the modern states of Lebanon and Israel (including the Palestinian territories) and most of Syria and Jordan.

The Levant...a fuzzy region. Rough boundaries on a modern political map.

The Levant…a fuzzy region. Rough boundaries on a modern political map.

The term “the Levant” goes back to the end of the 15th century. It comes to English directly from the French levant, a form of the verb lever, “to rise.” The Levant was so-called because that was the land where the sun rose (as far as most Europeans, especially sailors on the Med, were concerned). As with other directional words, such as orient and occident, levant eventually came to have a different meaning — one rooted in generic geography (“eastward“) but applied to a specific region (“the Levant“). (As usual, most of the word origin material here is taken from the OED.)

Getting back to why this ISIS/ISIL difference matters: if The Islamic State was only concerned with Iraq and Syria, it might not be of great concern to much of the world (although a violent fundamentalist state with a port on the Mediterranean should probably unnerve just about everyone). But if that same state has ambitions on all the lands which make up the historical Levant, that’s a great deal more worrisome. A violent fundamentalist state of any ideology (I’d be just as worried about them if they were Christian, or even Buddhist for that matter) actively pursuing territorial designs across this region is a problem. Perhaps neither term, ISIS nor ISIL, adequately emphasizes the potential danger. But on a daily basis, ISIL raises the more disturbing specter.

For what it’s worth, even the Obama Administration’s use of ISIL is a little bit behind the times. The Islamic State officially removed “in Iraq and the Levant” from its name at the end of June this year. Rather than limiting its territorial ambitions, however, this move was instead seen by many as a sign that the organization now feels it is in a position, at least from a propaganda perspective, to claim that it is the one and only legitimate Islamic state on Earth, expecting allegiance from all Muslims worldwide. They certainly seem to believe this themselves, going so far as to declare a caliphate.

In case you’re wondering if the name of the country Lebanon evolved from the Levant, the answer is No. While it seems an easy leap from one to the other linguistically (“b” and “v” sounds are virtually interchangeable in some languages; shift the “t” to “on” over time) and politically (could the French, who also used “le Levant,” have dropped the label on one of the post-colonial states created after World War I?), the words Levant and Lebanon are believed to have no relation. Levant’s origins (described above) are directional, while Lebanon’s origins are strictly geographical. Lebanon is named for Mount Lebanon, which probably derives its name from an Arabic word for “white” and reportedly has textual references dating back as far as 4000 years.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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5 Responses to ISIS or ISIL? What’s in a name? A lot if you’re paying attention.

  1. This topic has been very popular and this post has received a lot of views. So it’s probably useful to add this tidbit for readers:

    Since I first posted this, at least one major US news source seems to have stopped using ISIS. National Public Radio (NPR) now refers to this group in news coverage as “The Islamic State,” “Islamic State,” or simply “IS.” They’ve skipped right past ISIL (which is still used by the Obama Administration) in favor of the name the group uses for itself.

    The rest of the American press is still stubbornly using ISIS, which is especially curious since (as I noted in the original post) the group never referred to itself by this name.

  2. John Hamilton says:

    Here’s the problem: in Arabic, it’s Iraq and “al-Sham”, so ISIS is closest to the group’s actual, former name.

    • Thanks for the note, John. This is a good point.

      However, the sources I’ve checked don’t agree.

      I don’t speak Arabic — I understand only about a dozen words — so I rely on others. The research I’ve done suggests that modern speakers tend to use “al-Sham” in the same way that I’ve described the western “Levant” above: it usually refers to a greater (or historical) Syria as a region, but not the current state and its political boundaries. When they mean to indicate Syria (the modern state), contemporary speakers use “Suriyya.”

      Transliterations will vary, and of course no translation is ever 100% accurate (and there’s also an idiomatic use of al-Sham that we haven’t touched…). I might have this wrong in the end, but I’m confident I’ve got it right today. (And if I’ve got it wrong, then so have some smart people whose writings and opinions I’ve used to make this conclusion.)

  3. Robert Rudolph says:

    Is Levant referenced extensively in the adventures of Marco Polo?

    • Yes. I had to do a little research here and what I’ve learned is sketchy (but still interesting).
      For one thing, the term “Levant” didn’t come into use in English until a couple centuries after Polo died. Which isn’t an issue, since the book was first written in Old French (apparently the literary language at the time and in the place where it was put together).
      It also seems that when Polo (or his chronicler, or translators since) used “Levant” they primarily used it in a more literal sense (of “east”) and generally used it to refer to the eastern the parts of the Great Khan’s empire — much deeper into Asia and China than later (English) uses of “the Levant.”

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