Many politicians love to call the Islamic State Daesh. They don’t like the group, so Daesh sounds like a good dirty word that fits. Syrian activist Khaled al-Haj Saleh was the one who first used the term to degrade the former al-Qaeda affiliate. It sounded similar to ‘daes’, one who crushes something underfoot, or ‘dahes’, a tumor.
However, Daesh is an Arabic abbreviation that translates to ISIL, which stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. President Obama favored using the term ISIL, until ISIL decided to go with the Islamic State. At that point, he rejected their name altogether.
“ISIL is not “Islamic,” he said. “And ISIL is certainly not a state.”
It is no secret that President Obama struggles to separate between terrorism and Islam. When the group decided to go with the ultimate Islamic name that doesn’t require a shortcut, they certainly gave the American president a challenge.
Still, refusing to recognize their new name made it difficult for us to understand what it meant for them to shift from ISIL to IS. It was the turning point at which they decided that the borders of their caliphate should expand beyond Syria and Iraq.
We translate ‘Souriya’ to Syria, ‘Shaam’ to Levant, ‘España’ to Spain, and ‘Deutschland’ to Germany, yet we won’t translate the one name that’s important for us to understand.
When it comes to Arabic words, too many people use them without knowing what they mean, which often leads to misunderstandings.
My full name is MHD Abdo Roumani. MHD is an abbreviation for Muhammad. Abdo is a shortcut for Abdullah, which translates to “the servant of Allah.” Roumani stands for Roman
In 2013, I was accepted to the master’s degree at the University of Manchester but I wasn’t able to start the degree course. Even though I met the point-system requirements, my visa application to the UK was unsuccessful.
Allowing Muhammad the servant of Allah, who came from Syria at time of war, into the UK seemed like a long shot anyway.
It could be worse though.
When I was a teenager, and as an atheist, getting rid of Muhammad on my passport was a priority. I wasn’t able to change my name because I would have had to file a law suit against my parents. But I managed to take it down to MHD.
That was not the case for one of my best friends, Muhammad Jihad. He was just an agnostic.
Jihad no longer gets visas. He got so many refusals on his passport that he had to change it before applying for another one.
“I can’t show up at the embassy with all these refusals, habibie,” he told me. “They Italians will turn me down without even looking further than my name.”
The sad thing about this is that all Arabic names have a meaning (which is why they are normally chosen) and both his names are incredibly beautiful.
Muhammad means one who is ‘praised’ and ‘thanked’ for his good deeds: a man with a good reputation. Fourteen centuries ago, Muhammad had to earn his name but now we get it for free.
As for Jihad, it translates to ‘struggle’, or ‘making the most effort to achieve something’. Jihad is mentioned in the Arabic Bible, for instance in Philippians 1:30, “since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.” Nevertheless, no one called their son Jihad until Islam turned this word into a legislation and a culture.
Muhammad spoke of two types of jihad; a lesser jihad and a greater jihad. The first is a holy war to defend Islam, Muslims and Muslim nations. As for the greater jihad, it is a Muslim’s inner struggle to be moral and live up to Islamic principles. Fighting for the environment is a kind of jihad – someone has recently labelled it as the Green Jihad.
Jihad for Muslims simply means their way to live life. If you dislike Jihad, you may as well reject Muslim or Islam, both of which are common names.
Names in Arabic have much to do with individualism. In ancient times, an Arab would be called multiple names, earned throughout his or her life.
Ahmad is a man of the best qualities. Mustafa is the one selected for a noble cause or mission. Ali is the honorable man of high status. Alia is the female version of Ali. Layla is a woman who shares the same qualities as wine or the night, and Aisha is the one who lives a happy life.
Our names tell either who we are or whom we want to be.
Names certainly become problematic when it comes to the Islamic State but calling them Daesh will not solve the problem. President Obama argued that the Islamic State is not Islamic, but what does Islamic mean anyway?
Islam in Arabic means “the submission to God under any religion.” A Muslim (f. Muslima) is someone who submits to God, whether he’s a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim.
“We’re all Muslims to the Lord of the Worlds,” once said Antoun Saadeh, a Lebanese Christian who pioneered Syrian national socialism in the first half of the twentieth century. “Some of us have submitted to God through Koran, some of us have submitted to God through the Bible, and others have submitted to God through wisdom.”
Saadeh, who was executed by the Lebanese government in 1949, called for some of what the Islamic State has partly achieved; dissolving the Sykes-Picot borders and uniting Iraq and the Levant under what he considered Natural Syria. The main difference between Saadeh and the Islamic State is that Saadeh considered religion and culture to be personal matters, rejecting both Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism, whereas the State advocates Pan-Islamism, which calls for the nation to submit to God as a whole, through sharia, which is another word that’s perceived negatively in the West.
Sharia in Arabic means law and is often used to describe religious laws. The Arabic Bible always uses the word sharia, “and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” (Philippians 3:9)
Our conflict with the Islamic State in Syria has nothing to do with their brutality. Statistically speaking, they’re the least brutal, murderous and corrupt of most players, including the Syrian government, the so called moderate rebels and even the US-led Coalition. Our main problem with them is that they want an Islamic State above everyone, whereas we believe in a secular state under everyone, including Muslims. Denying the Islamic State their name is one way to contribute to the continued misunderstanding of this conflict’s nature.
Westerners’ use of Arabic words and terms will certainly help bridging some gaps between the Occident and the Orient, as long as people understand what they’re saying. Saying Daesh, which was meant to be an offensive word, however, is a recipe for creating gaps.
We can do better.