ISIL or ISIS? Pagans Join Debate Over Islamic Militia’s Name

Heather Greene —  June 25, 2014 — 35 Comments

In recent months, a controversy has been brewing around the name and the acronym for the militant Islamic group Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham (DAASH). The most common English translations of that name are The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. More commonly, the militant group is referred to in the media as ISIS. Both the translations and the common acronym have caused significant frustration for many, including Pagans.

A  New York Times article, dated June 18, explained the problem from a linguistic perspective. The Arabic name, Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, is not effectively expressed in the most commonly used translation: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The jihadists’ mission, as reflected by their Arabic name, is to create a caliphate that incorporates a far larger region than the modern countries of Iraq and Syria. The translated name, and its acronym ISIS, do not clearly relay the group’s intent.

By NordNordWest, Spesh531 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons] Red indicates areas controlled by ISIL; Yellow indicates areas claimed by ISIL

By NordNordWest, Spesh531 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons]
Red indicates areas controlled by ISIL; Yellow indicates areas claimed by ISIL; White indicates the rest of Iraq and Syria

The New York Times writer suggests that “the already familiar ISIS abbreviation could simply be said to stand for The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.” The Arabic word al-Sham defines that larger region, not limited by modern national borders. The area includes Cyprus, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and southern Turkey. Using the Arabic term al-Sham accurately pinpoints the group’s intent. However, this word is unfamiliar to the casual English-speaking reader and, consequently, does not solve the problem of masked intent.

Additionally, even with this minor adjustment in translation, the acronym ISIS is still viable. Either way, it is regularly being used in mainstream media reporting, including major outlets such as the BBC, The Huffington Post, CNN, NBC, The Los Angeles Times and others. The Washington Post writes:

[We have] been referring to the organization as ISIS, shorthand for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This is how most news organizations that operate in English began identifying the outfit when it emerged as a dangerous fighting force two years ago, launching terror strikes and carving out territory amid the Syrian civil war.

While the Times suggestion solves one issue, the continued use of the acronym ISIS itself poses an entirely different problem for Pagans and Heathens who venerate the Egyptian Goddess of the same name. The Fellowship of Isis (FOI), a worldwide organization, made this public statement:

We are a multi-faith organisation dedicated to the feminine aspect in all religions, and have a priesthood whose manifesto is one of peace, tolerance and respect for all spiritual expression … It is disturbing and confusing to our members and the general public who know of our organization when media use the acronym ISIS for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militia.

On June 20, the Huffington Post UK reported that the Pagan Federation sent in a letter asking that the news outlet stop using the ISIS acronym. The published letter reads:

We are writing to you on behalf of our members to express concerns over the use of the acronym ISIS which is currently being used when mentioning the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Greater Syria) militia, and would request that the acronym ISIL, which has established usage elsewhere in the world be used.

The reason for this request is because the acronym ISIS is likely to form an inadvertent association in the minds of hearers between Sunni jihadists and followers of the goddess Isis, with the potential for harm to innocent people from a completely unrelated religion.

Holli Emore, director of Cherry Hill Seminary and writer at Patheos’ Wild Garden blog, is the founder and Priestess of the Osireion Temple in South Carolina.  Emore says that she is “disinclined to feel alarm at the acronym ISIS being bandied about in the mainstream news this summer.” She adds:

It is a bit disconcerting to hear the name of one of my goddesses regularly repeated in the international news, and such terrible news it is!  And yet I note that “Isis” as a name or acronym is found in lots of places.  There is, the Institute for Science and International Security, and, home of the International Species Information System.  Many university campuses use an online student network called ISIS which stands for the Intercampus Student Information System.  Interestingly, here in South Carolina there is a Department of Education system-wide database called Osiris. 

Like the names of many ancient deities, Isis is found as a designator for many organizations, products and activities. Emore adds:

What all of this tells me is that the great mother goddess of ancient Egypt, whose worship stretched to all parts of the Roman Empire (a piece of a temple of Isis has been found in the Thames River), is a ubiquitous archetype in the mind of at least the western world.  The Mistress of All Magic has so infused our imagination that those who never had a thought for Pagan religion feel it natural to adopt her beautiful name…

However, in this particular case, the organization is a terrorist group with violent intent based on religious extremism. Its mission to create a caliphate has no connection, symbolic or otherwise, to Ancient Egyptian mythology. It is just happenstance. In fact, the group itself and the local communities use the acronym DAASH.

The goddess Isis.

The goddess Isis. [Public Domain Image]

As noted by the Pagan Federation’s letter, there is a third translation option. Some agencies are now calling this group The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Like al-Sham, the somewhat-antiquated word Levant refers to the larger Middle East region making it a better translation of the original Arabic. As such, the group’s acronym becomes ISIL. Currently the U.S. State department, President Obama and other governments worldwide are using this translation and its corresponding acronym.

The Associated Press has itself opted to use ISIL and The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in its own work. It also recommends that particular translation and usage in its AP Stylebook. However the change overall is slow in coming. Many writers and media outlets have adjusted to using “the Levant” but still use the acronym ISIS. In its press release, the FOI has put out a call out to editors asking:

We respectfully request that your organization from this point forward refer to this group by its other accepted name, I.S.I.L., Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and require that your correspondents and guests do the same. 

Despite the continued discussions and declarations of name translation changes, the extremist group is still most readily recognized and now even marketed with the acronym ISIS. Recently several companies, mostly out of Indonesia, have begun selling clothing and paraphernalia, over the Internet, that display the militant organization’s logo with the acronym ISIS. According to a CNN report, one of the shirts reads: “We are all Isis.” The same article quotes Delma Institute researcher Hassan Hassan as saying, “Using merchandise to market itself as ‘cool’ is a one of the common propaganda tools ISIS uses.” Facebook has been removing these sites but sales continue elsewhere.

Art and Photo by Lady Pythia.  It was posted publicly online as part of her call-to-the-media to stop using the acronym ISIS.

Art and Photo by Lady Pythia. This was posted publicly as part of a call-to-the-action to stop using the acronym ISIS.

Because the group and its supporters appear to have embraced the acronym themselves, the debate over the name extends well-beyond simple media usage. As for members of The Fellowship of Isis, the Pagan Federation and other individuals who are unsettled by use of the acronym ISIS, this struggle may be more difficult than originally expected. Emore is trying to look at the situation differently and toward a brighter future. She says:

A fragment of Osireion liturgy (which derives from the ancients) is the line “we know you, we know your names.”  A name is sacred and powerful, but it seems to me that the media does not know Aset’s name, nor her strength.  May she soon work her magic to bring calm to the turmoil of the Levant.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • I prefer DAASH, since I believe that it is preferable to call nations (and in this case would-be nations) by the name they themselves choose.

    • AndrasArthen

      DAASH itself is questionable — according to a native speaker I know, the more accurate transliteration of the Arabic acronym is DAISH. I essentially agree with you, but people all over the world tend to translate foreign names into their own languages, and that’s a very difficult thing to change. Here, they commonly say Spain instead of España, or Havana instead of La Habana (silent “h”), or Egypt instead of Miṣr. In Hispanic countries, they use Nueva York, and abbreviate U.S. as EEUU (Estados Unidos). I personally favor ISIL, for the reasons stated in the article.

      • TadhgMor

        The issue is English doesn’t have a letter that correlates to ‘ain in Arabic. It’s usually transliterated as ‘a but in this case has taken on a short vowel “i” (called a kasra). So that’s why you see Daash and Daish both. Both are technically accurate ways to transliterate the same Arabic.

  • Lisa from Iroquois

    If they call themselves DAASH what business do we have trying to rename them? THAT is a source of confusion. Deliberate and disrespectful on the part of media.

    • Charles Cosimano

      Why should we respect them?

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        Why shouldn’t we?

        • because people who target civilians should be treated with contempt. Anyone that blows up a market full of bystanders, and then targets those who would help save them, for whatever reason, does not deserve respect. They deserve a shallow grave and their names to be forgotten.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            I think you have a slightly narrow view of “respect”.

            Respect does not always mean “have fluffy feelings for”. It can also mean “appreciate what they are capable of”.

            I will quickly point out Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden, though…

          • I understand – and I also disagree. Mocking them and feeling contempt for them has nothing to do with acknowledging their capabilities. Calling them whatever we want falls under the first, while sending SpecOps to deal with them falls under the second.

  • Holli Emore

    Well done, Heather. I would note that the U.S. State Dept. uses the acronym ISIL I find myself deeply disturbed, less by Isis’ name being on the national news every night, and more by the millions of people being displaced by a power play by thugs in the name of a religion they obviously do not put into practice themselves.

  • Franklin_Evans

    There was an underground comic that told the story of two egregiously misnamed people who were just naive enough to not understand why each of them were lonely and unable to get past a first date. The end of the comic shows them meeting for the first time on a blind date and sharing their names with each other. Freely interpreting from my memory of the last panel:
    He says to her, “Fuhque”. in the same moment she says to him “Kismias”. They frown at each other, turn away and leave.

    I guess my point here is my belief that the power of a name is in some part the power we give to it. Further, we do not need to give that power to naive or ignorant people who knee-jerk their reactions to things.

    I don’t wish harm on anyone, but political correctness itself is a proven source of harm. PC absolves its users from being aware of that harm, let alone being aware of the potential for harm, just as much as the knee-jerkers who feel compelled to act on their ignorance.

  • Deborah Bender

    FWIW, I would pronounce DAASH “dah-ahsh” with a glottal stop between the two “ah”s. That is how it would be pronounced if it were a Hebrew acronym. Since Arabic has phonemes similar to the English “ah” and glottal stop, my guess is that this pronunciation is similar to the way Arabic speakers would say the acronym aloud.

    • KhonsuMes Matt

      Very close! The first letter of Iraq in Arabic is an `ain, not a glottal stop (hamza), so most locals would probably use that sound. But it is quite hard for westerners to say and using a glottal stop will be more recognizable to Arabic speakers than just making a long ah sound, or worse inserting a ‘y’. (Also FWIW, the sound between the a and i in al-Qaida is also `ain).

      • Deborah Bender

        Hebrew of course has the letter Ayin which in Ashkenazic pronunciation and some dialects of Israeli Hebrew is now a silent letter, but Yemenite Jews still pronounce it. As you say, it’s hard for Westerners.

        • KhonsuMes Matt

          ‘Uh-Oh’ kind of works… You know, I remember an Israeli colleague of Moroccan descent who said that his Hebrew pronunciation would trip up people, until he (and they) realized he was pronouncing the ayins. Neat to learn that the Yemeni communities preserve the sound.

      • TadhgMor

        I always just tell people ‘ain is like an a from the bottom of your throat….except it’s a consonant so it can take on short vowels.

        An ‘ain with a kasra always sounds like an “e” pronounced low in the throat to me, which is how I try to explain it. Because saying “eh-raq” is closer for an English speaker than “ai-rak” (which is how my fellow Southerners butcher the name).

  • Medusa

    A week or so ago, I heard one of the news commentators on MSNBC (I think it was Rachel Maddow) use the acronym ISIL. Oh good, I thought, at least she understands the implications of using “Isis” as a name of a terrorist/warlike group. Then a few days later, she too was using the acronym ISIS (and still is, as of yesterday). My guess is that a decision was made my MSNBC to have their broadcasters use that term 🙁 That AP and other style guides do NOT advocate this term is interesting, and a good argument to use in getting news people to stop using it, which would be my preference.

  • Of course, this seems somewhat academic since the original Egyptian pronunciation more likely “Aset” or “Iset” (at least as far as I’m aware)….

  • TadhgMor

    Alright I’m sorry but that’s just silly.

    ISIS is an acronym used in a context that is next to impossible to confuse with any Goddess. I’ve used that acronym since most people aren’t comfortable with Daash or Daish (which is another translation issue). Further, no matter how much some pagan groups complain, the abbreviation is coming from policy wonks who quite frankly could care less what outside groups do with it. Having spent some time as one of those policy wonks, I’m not worried about the tiny tiny fraction of people who might mistake the clear use of an acronym for a terrorist group with an Egyptian Goddess.

    Also “the Levant” doesn’t really accurately explain it either. Traditionally that refers to the coastal region, not the interior of Syria like Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour where ISIS is based. It’s sort of fuzzy, just like “as-Sham” which is really a poetic name.

    This just feels silly. We can’t play into the hands of people who push that “oh you’re too sensitive” nonsense with irrelevant stuff like this. Because then when it does matter they’ll be able to use this example against us.

    • kenofken

      It’s hard to conflate the ISIS group with any pagan imagery because it is probably the most virulent and violent anti-pagan/infidel Abrahamic group on the planet right now.

      • TadhgMor

        That’s part of it, but I also can’t think of any context where ISIS/DAISH comes up that could be mistaken for the Goddess Isis.

        This is the sort of behavior that makes everyone, not just the groups involved, look silly. It’s a bit frustrating.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          The first article I saw that mentioned ISIS used an all capital headline and was something along the lines of “ISIS IN IRAQ”, and it caught my attention.

          I was actually pretty disappointed to find I wasn’t reading about an archaeological find or modern Kemetic group.

          Makes me wonder, actually. What would happen if a “pagan” type group decided to try and reclaim their land from Abrahamic corruption in such a physically violent manner?

          • The Serbs in the 90’s may be an example of that.

          • Franklin_Evans

            How so?

          • Aspects of Serb culture are rooted in their Paganism, but also rooted in hatred of anything or anyone who is non-Serbian. Many Serbs were in favor of the “ethnic-cleansing” that happened then.

          • Franklin_Evans

            I’d like to read your expansion on that, but that’s your choice.

            My view — my father was born 1916 in Cetinje, educated in a military academy and served as an officer in the Serbian army defeated by Tito’s partisans — looks to a history of being at the crossroads of migrations and invasions by outsiders. I read once that a defining aspect of the Russian ethnic personality is paranoia, and I can assert subjectively that the Serbian ethnic personality fits that description very well.

            My further subjective view is that the Serbs and Croats are well-matched in their xenophobia and antipathy towards outsiders. They were traditional enemies for centuries. If you have specific reasons for singling out the Serbs in what is very much a regional norm, I’d be grateful to read them.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            They really weren’t. Serbia is a very Christian country (most Serbs are adherents of the Serbian Orthodox Church).

            Their motives were also very much not about restoring pre-Christian beliefs and ideals.

            Conflating pre-Christian ideals and nationalism/racism is a bad idea.

    • I wonder if you would feel the same if the acronym was DRUID or the name of one of your Divinities.

      • TadhgMor

        Yes, I would. In fact, just like ISIS, the acronym DRUID has been used by some tech firms. In context, there is absolutely no chance of confusion.

        Again there is some horrible irony in that no one listens when people like me complain about real appropriation, but are making an issue out of this nonsense example. There is no chance of confusion here, whereas there is a serious problem of new modern definitions erasing old ones on the other issues I bring up.

        • Perhaps, just maybe, people fail to listen to you because you call the issues that concern them “silly”. Just a suspicion on my part.

          • TadhgMor

            That doesn’t make any logical sense, since people have been ignoring appropriation concerns from me and others LONG before this particular case came up.

            Also, you can feel free to explain why it isn’t silly. I’ll listen. Because nothing I’ve seen anyone offer looks like more than being ridiculously oversensitive. A charge which I hesitate to use, since it is abused so often.

  • kenofken

    I’m going to venture to say that linguistics and coincidental appropriation of a goddess name is way at the bottom of the list of concerns surrounding ISIS/ISIL right now…

    • true … they pose a mortal danger to those people in the area which they consider “pagan”: Yezidis, Shabaks, Ahl-e Haqq, Bahai, Sufis worshipping at tombs of saints, Atheists, etc.

  • Gabe

    Why is this even an issue? ISIS is an acronym not a reference to the Goddess is any form. If we really allow ourselves to get spun up over this then we are no better then Muslims who act a fool for someone drawing a cartoon of Muhammed.

  • Winter Storm Dragon

    Seriously could care less about the damn name. It’s also an app American express has. Who cares?! My fiance has family in one of the hottest zones right now, they could already be gone from us. I’m more worried about that than a damn name.