Comment

What should we call Islamic State: DAISH or IS?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and many other national and community leaders have contended that it is important to use the term DAISH when we identify the territorial and political entity that has been declared as "Islamic State", or Khilafat, on large swaths of war-torn Syria and Iraq territories since June 2014. The debate by which name the entity should be identified is somewhat semantic, for it is not the name but rather the entity itself that really matters. Nonetheless, some clarification may be helpful.

DAISH (not Daesh, as is often spelt in the West) is the Arab acronym for Al-Dawlah Al-Islamiyah fe Al-Iraq wa Al-Sham (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or Sham), for which the acronym is ISIL or ISIS, as was originally used by the group that now prefers to be called Khilafat, or Islamic State (or IS). The reason for the group's insistence on using the term IS is because it wants to be recognised and respected as a sovereign, independent unit in the region and beyond. Its leadership under the self-styled khalif, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, wishes to promote this unit as borderless, encompassing not only the Muslim Middle East but also the entire Muslim world, and therefore attracting Muslims to support it and join it from wherever they are located.

As such, Al-Baghdadi and his followers are keen to promote the unit as the successor to the earlier Islamic Khilafat, which was established after the death of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, in 632, and which over a period of time presided over a vast Islamic empire, at first under an Arab leadership until the 13th century and subsequently under the Ottoman rulers from the 14th century through to the end of World War II. However, in the wake of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the colonial British and French division of the empire's Arab dependencies, including today's Iraq and Syria, and the foundation of the modern Turkish state by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the latter abolished the institution of Khilafat in 1924.

These developments and the colonialist reconstruction of the Middle East into nation-states caused much consternation in the Muslim world. Ever since, many groups, ranging from Hizb ut-Tahrir to al-Qaeda, have emerged with a call to revive Khilafat and thus unite all Muslim countries under a single umbrella leadership. Of course, this is not an objective that can easily be achieved by any means, for over time the Westphalian concept of the nation-state has superseded the traditional notion of Khilafat in the Muslim world.

As such, Al-Baghdadi's declared Khilafat faces an impossible task. All Muslim governments and Muslim organisations and movements, with the exception of few radical ones (such as the Taliban and Hizb ut-Tahrir) have denounced the IS as fake. Most Islamic learned scholars have also rejected their religious discourse and their justification. They have done so on the grounds that the IS is not of the nature, quality and operation that resembles the earlier Khilafat, which most Muslims believe was known for its just and humane rule. In the same vein, most other governments and societies around the world have condemned the IS as nothing more than a terrorist entity that needs to be expunged.

Although initially the acronyms ISIS and ISIL were used in the West to identify the extremist group behind the IS' establishment, many have now found it appropriate to refer to IS by the group's original acronym of DAISH. This is not to imply recognition of IS as a state in any shape or form. They have argued that IS is neither Islamic nor a state, but rather a terrorist entity. Some, including Abbott, have called it a "death cult".

Ultimately, it does not matter what name or acronym one uses, for it is the reality behind it with which one must deal. The use of the acronym DAISH may irritate Al-Baghdadi and his zealots, who now preside over about 8 million people within a resource-rich territory through brutal ideological, bureaucratic and security controls. But it is unlikely to detract from what they consider to be their "Islamic mission". Some may argue that they are as bad as the former brutal Cambodian leader, Pol Pot, and his Khmer Rouge cult, who killed 2 million people for the sake of creating what they misguidedly thought to be an ideal state.

Amin Saikal is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.

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