I love history, and I love mythology. This is why, on August 30, 2001, my wife and I named our first-born Isis, after the high goddess of the ancient Egyptian pantheon. The goddess Isis, whose origins stretch back, at the very least, 4500 years from the present, was worshipped as the ideal of motherhood, as a deity who cared for the plight of others, as one who would watch over travelers, and who was ‘Great of Magic’, being able to bring life to the dead.
Her influence was such that her worship continued for more than 3000 years, not only in Egyptian culture, but also by the high civilisations of the ancient Greeks and Romans as well.
Fast forward the better part of five millennia, and it has taken just three years for a loose assortment of low-life scumbags to co-opt that name of compassion, magic and power. For whatever reasons, a group with many names – including, in Arabic, ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī ‘l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām; in English Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and Islamic State (IS) – has become more popularly referred to simply as ‘ISIS’ (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), largely through mass media repetition and then reinforcement through discussions on social media.
Perhaps it is the fact that people already know the word Isis – it is in their subconscious already, so it’s easier to connect meanings to it. Unfortunately, the word Isis within your subconscious has power associated with it, both through its ancient heritage and by the nature of the goddess herself. By connecting it to these weak losers, you gift them some of that power through the name alone. So what I’d like to ask you to do, is to stop using it.
There are a lot of powerful people with the name of Isis. My daughter is one of those. But their power comes from being compassionate, intelligent, beautiful, and magical. The group that has been co-opting the name are party to none of those attributes, and it is those attributes which give true power. So stop calling them by the name Isis.
Unfortunately, women named Isis, no matter what their personal attributes, now have to put up with associations with this group – despite having had the name much longer, and doing many good things in that name. For instance, this week software engineer Isis Anchalee had her Facebook account shut down, apparently because the mega-tech corporation assumed a connection with terrorism based on her name.
Facebook thinks I'm a terrorist. Apparently sending them a screenshot of my passport is not good enough for them to reopen my account.
A far better answer is to stop using the word Isis in relation to the murderous group currently wreaking havoc in Syria and Iraq. But what to call them, you might ask? As mentioned above, they have been referred to under several other names: Barack Obama has been referring to them as ISIL, many others (including myself) simply as Islamic State. But those names suffer from the same problem – it associates this group with statehood, in a way legitimising it, and it also associates it with Islam, and I’m sure most Muslims feel the same way about linking them with that word as I do with Isis.
So here’s the solution. It’s one that has already become official in many quarters: call them Daesh (or Da’ish). The word – originally coined by Syrian activists, but now in official usage in France, Australia, and by others such as John Kerry – is an acronym that accurately reflects the group’s chosen name, ‘ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī ‘l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām’. But Daesh are apparently furious about it, with reports that they have threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone who uses it. Why, if it is an accurate acronym? Here’s your answer, summarised well by Arabic translator Alice Guthrie:
Because they hear it, quite rightly, as a challenge to their legitimacy: a dismissal of their aspirations to define Islamic practice, to be ‘a state for all Muslims’ and – crucially – as a refusal to acknowledge and address them as such. They want to be addressed as exactly what they claim to be, by people so in awe of them that they use the pompous, long and delusional name created by the group, not some funny-sounding made-up word. And here is the very simple key point that has been overlooked in all the anglophone press coverage I’ve seen: in Arabic, acronyms are not anything like as widely used as they are in English, and so arabophones are not as used to hearing them as anglophones are.
Thus, the creation and use of a title that stands out as a nonsense neologism for an organisation like this one is inherently funny, disrespectful, and ultimately threatening of the organisation’s status. Khaled al-Haj Salih, the Syrian activist who coined the term back in 2013, says that initially even many of his fellow activists, resisting Daesh alongside him, were shocked by the idea of an Arabic acronym, and he had to justify it to them by referencing the tradition of acronyms being used as names by Palestinian organisations (such as Fatah). So saturated in acronyms are we in English that we struggle to imagine this, but it’s true.
All of this means that the name lends itself well to satire, and for the arabophones trying to resist Daesh, humour and satire are essential weapons in their nightmarish struggle. But the satirical weight of the word as a weapon, in the hands of the Syrian activists who have hewn it from the rock of their nightmare reality, does not just consist of the weirdness of acronyms. As well as being an acronym, it is also only one letter different from the word ‘daes داعس’ , meaning someone or something that crushes or tramples. Of course that doesn’t mean, as many articles have claimed, that ‘daesh’ is ‘another conjugation’ of the verb ‘to crush or trample’, nor that that is ‘a rough translation of one of the words in the acronym’ – it’s simply one letter different from this other word. Imagine if the acronym of ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’ spelt out ‘S.H.I.D’ in English: activists and critics would certainly seize the opportunity to refer to the organisation as ‘shit’ – but I think it’s safe to say that no serious foreign media outlet would claim that ‘shit’ was another conjugation of the verb ‘shid’, nor a rough translation of it.
…Some Syrians I’ve talked to rate the satirical value of the word very highly; for others, such as al-Haj Salih himself, however, the main weight of the word is not around humour, but around two very serious points he and others make. First of these is that both the shape of the word and the combination of letters in it are redolent of words from al-jahaliyya, the pre-Islamic dark ages or ‘age of ignorance’ that – as well as being a time rich in poetry and narrative heritage – has huge connotations of hideous barbarity in the popular imagination, being the realm of jinns and monsters and evil spirits and marauding freaks. This has also been overlooked in anglophone coverage, or been confused with an idea of the word having a previous set meaning in and of itself: as we know, it doesn’t. But given the connotations of this type of word, it sounds (to many an arabophone ear) very clearly like it must denote some crazed, bloodthirsty avatar belching back out from the guts of history.
As al-Haj Salih very gently and firmly expresses to me by phone when I interview him for this piece, ‘If an organisation wants to call itself ‘the light’, but in fact they are ‘the darkness’, would you comply and call them ‘the light’?’ The second, and equally important, point that al-Haj Salih stresses to me is another take on why a neologism is insulting: it’s an obviously fictitious name, for an obviously fictional concept. Once again, the movement’s claim to legitimacy as a state and to rule is being rejected as nonsense, reflected in a fabricated nonsense name for them.
So the insult picked up on by Daesh is not just that the name makes them sound little, silly, and powerless, but that it implies they are monsters, and that they are made-up.
Guthrie was also interviewed about this by Public Radio International:
Here’s my challenge to you. Start using Daesh as the moniker for this group. Never associate them with the name Isis again, except perhaps in explaining the name Daesh to others. Hop on Facebook and ask your friends to do the same. Don’t give this group power – instead do what they don’t want you to do: belittle them, satirise them, make clear their true nature, which is of weakness, ignorance and non-compassion. Call them Daesh.
When you think of Isis from now on, think of the image of the goddess at the top of this post, or of the image of my own goddess Isis below, caught dancing in the sunset, as personifying the true beauty of that name.