Some conservatives have tried to make something of the fact that President Barack Obama routinely refers to the organization that seized the Iraqi city of Mosul and declared a caliphate not as the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” or ISIS, but as the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” or ISIL. In his televised address about the group on September 10, for example, he used the acronym ISIL twenty times.
The ISIS vs. ISIL controversy first emerged, as far as I can tell, when FoxNews.com published “Obama’s Use of ISIL, not ISIS, Tells Another Story” on August 24, an analysis of the two acronyms by Liz Peek of the Fiscal Times. Peek argued:
Both describe the same murderous organization. The difference is that the Levant describes a territory far greater than simply Iraq and Syria. It’s defined as this: The Levant today consists of the island of Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and part of southern Turkey.
In other words, Levant inflates the group’s ambitions from merely two countries to significantly more. Some go even further: Phyllis Chesler tentatively adds Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates.
Peek sees in this a cunning sleight of hand by Obama de-emphasizing his failures in Syria and Iraq. Others suspect him of gratuitously yanking Israel into the equation. But there is no meaningful geographic or political difference between the two translations.
In Arabic, the organization (at least until it was renamed in late June 2014) is Ad-Dawla as-Islamiya fi’l-Iraq wa’sh-Sham (الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام, known in Arabic by the acronym Da‘sh). All but the final word are simple to translate. Sham, usually translated as Greater Syria, has no exact equivalent in English. Greater Syria is an amorphous geographic and cultural term like Midwest or Middle East that lacks official boundaries. It always includes the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, as well as the Palestinian Territories, but some also consider it to include parts of Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, and even all of Cyprus.
Inasmuch as there has never been a sovereign country called Sham, the term’s geographic meaning remains a theoretical debate. For most of the 20th century, from 1918 to 2000, politicians (such as King Abdullah I of Jordan and Hafez al-Assad of Syria) and movements (notably the Syrian Social Nationalist Party) aspired without success to create and dominate Sham. (I wrote a book on this topic, Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition, published by Oxford University Press in 1990.)
Because “Greater Syria” is heavy on the tongue, Da‘sh’s name gets simplified to “Syria.” But that name being so easily confused with the existing state of Syria which first came into existence in 1946, others choose to translate “Sham” as “Levant.” Although Levant has the distinct advantage of not being thus confused, it is an archaic word dating to the 15th century full of gentle and exotic connotations utterly inappropriate to the murderous Da‘sh. Its borders are also imprecise, referring vaguely to the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, where the sun rises (levant is French for “rising”).
In short, both translations are accurate, both are correct, and both have deficiencies — one refers to a state, the other has an archaic ring. For reasons unknown to me, the executive branch of the U.S. government adopted the ISIL nomenclature and its staff generally use this term, even though members of Congress, the media, and specialists (including me) generally prefer ISIS.
So, let’s not worry how to translate Da‘sh and concentrate our efforts instead on ridding the world of this barbaric menace.
— Daniel Pipes is the president of the Middle East Forum. © 2014 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.