French govt to use Arabic ‘Daesh’ for Islamic State group

From an IS propaganda video

The French government has come up with an answer to a point of persistent journalistic confusion – how exactly does one refer to the Islamic State organisation brutally carving out a self-declared "caliphate" in Syria and northern Iraq?


From now on the French foreign ministry will be calling it Daesh, the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS or the Islamic State group.

Last week, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius asked journalists and media organisations to do the same.

He said: “This is a terrorist group and not a state. I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats’.”

His first press release using the name was issued on Monday.

Time will tell if the French media decide to toe the line. For the moment, FRANCE 24 is still calling it the Islamic State group, abbreviating that to IS when necessary.

While there is a great deal of international consensus that the IS group needs to be dealt with, this doesn’t stretch to nomenclature.

Both London and Washington refer to the IS group as ISIL, the anglicised acronym of what IS called itself until this summer when it dropped the “Levant” from its name, betraying its ambitions to restore the Muslim caliphate (which ended in 1924 when the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist).

The evolution of a name

The group that is now known as IS was founded in 2006 as a fusion of various jihadist groups operating in Iraq, including the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda, then led by the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

This new group called itself the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). After the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, ISI decided to expanded its operations across the border. ISI struggled for influence in Syria with another jihadist group affiliated with al Qaeda, al Nusra (Jabhat al Nusra or the Nusra Front), led by Abu Mohammed al Jawlani.

In April 2013, ISI chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that the al-Nusra Front and ISI were linked, and that henceforth they would be merged and known collectively as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Arabic for the Levant).

Al-Nusra Front leader Jawlani refused to accept the reorganisation, and al-Nusra continues to exist as a separate entity and as the official Syrian branch of al Qaeda.


Daesh is a loose acronym of the Arabic for “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham).Use of acronyms is rare in the Arabic world, with the notable exception of the Palestinian group Hamas (Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾiSlāmiyya).

First used in April 2013 by Arabic and Iranian media that were hostile to the jihadist movement, Daesh became a name commonly used by the enemies of the IS group, notably forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as activists and secular rebel groups also fighting the Damascus regime.

A principal reason for using the acronym was to remove the words “Islamic” and “State” in reference to the group, in a bid to stop Muslims in war-torn Syria and beyond from flocking to its ranks.

Defiance and disrespect

The term "Daesh" is also considered insulting, and the IS group itself doesn’t like the name one bit.

“Daesh” sounds like the Arabic term “Daes”, meaning “one who crushes something underfoot”, as well as “Dahes”, which means “one who sows discord”.

"Dahes" is also a reference to the Dahes wal Ghabra period of chaos and warfare between Arab tribes, an era that is famous in the Arab world as one of the precursors of the Muslim age.

“Daesh”, therefore, has considerably negative undertones, and it is little wonder that the French government has decided to deploy the term as a linguistic weapon.

(This article was translated from the original in French)

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