ISIL. ISIS. IS. DAISH. You have probably heard each one of those acronyms at least once over the last several months as the media and politicians attempt to determine the best way to refer to the terror group that declared a caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq.
IS simply stands for the Islamic State, while ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIL is the acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which seems remarkably similar to ISIS. The differentiation between the word ‘Syria’ and the word ‘Levant’ is actually quite significant, however, given the usage of the term by President Obama and his administration.
“ISIS and ISIL. The President is making a big deal out of this is ISIL, right? The Administration wants to call it ISIL,” Glenn said on radio this morning. “Stu, what’s the difference between ISIS and ISIL?”
“Interesting fact about the Levant,” Stu responded. “[It] encompasses parts of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and a place called Israel.”
The group’s name in Arabic is al dawla al islamiyye f’il iraq w’al sham. The last word, sham, is the problematic one. It is used, in the phrase bilad al sham, to refer variously to: the contemporary Levant, a somewhat amorphous region sometimes understood to include Iraq, and sometimes not; to the historical region called al sham in classical Arabic but known to the ancient Greeks and other civilizations as “Syria” or a variant thereof, which is roughly contiguous with the Levant; and to a Syrian nationalist dream of a “Greater Syria,” a region of similar extent that includes Iraq. Sham is also a contemporary nickname for Damascus, the Syrian capital; but modern-day Syria is called suriya.
At Quartz we’ve chosen to render sham as “Levant” over “Syria,” on the grounds that while scholars of Middle Eastern history might recognize “Syria” to have a broader meaning, most of our readers will take it to mean modern-day Syria, i.e., suriya, not sham. And then, if you’re using “Levant,” you might as well as abbreviate it logically—so, ISIL.
“So the president has the most powerful microphone on the planet,” Glenn said. “The slightest thing from the president reverberates… We have been joking ISIS, ISIL, what’s the difference. You say tomato; I say tomato. It makes a big difference because of this: ISIL includes Levant, which includes the area we like to call Israel.”
Obama has come under fire for underestimating the threat of this “jayvee team” wreaking havoc across the Middle East and threatening the western way of life, and yet he continuously refers to them as ISIL.
“They changed their name because they started saying, ‘We are bigger than this. We are bigger than Iraq and Syria. We are Iraq, Syria, and Levant,’” Glenn said of the terror group. “I don’t know what that means, but, believe me, the President does… What that means is: They have designs that go from Iran through Egypt. There is no Israel.”
“So by the President saying ‘this is ISIL,’ he is sending the message: I know who you are. I know what lands you are planning to take,” he concluded. “The President knows who these guys are. [But] he’s not telling you who they are. He’s trying to downplay that they are putting together a caliphate from Egypt to Iran. It does not include Israel. Maybe we should have a real frank conversation about what’s really going on.”