Why does a simple word like Daesh disturb extremists so much?

Daesh is a word that ISIL leaders have banned using for themselves. Colin Randall looks into the term's origins.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius calls ISIL "Daesh cutthroats". Photo: Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters
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Appearances can be deceptive but Manuel Valls, France’s prime minister, gave the distinct impression of spitting out the word “Daesh” when asked by a television reporter about yet another ISIL atrocity.

Until not very many weeks ago, the wonder would have been that he was using the word at all. Even with a reasonably extensive vocabulary in French, I scratched my head the first time I heard it mentioned on French television and had to look it up.

Now, it has entered common usage. We still hear the variants, especially l’État Islamique (Islamic State), but Daesh takes precedence over all other forms. It does so because that is what the French government wanted and the media have, by and large, complied.

But why? The president, Francois Hollande, and his ministers are convinced its use diminishes the extremists’ claim to represent a nation state, one with proper laws, rational policies and civilised standards of conduct, all qualities suggested by the title Islamic State and none applicable to the reality.

The foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, is even more blunt: “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. Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats’.”

The desire to insult the militants’ sensibilities is helped by the knowledge that being called Daesh does actually cause offence to ISIL. Most of us could live happily enough with that being the case, but there have been reports of people being flogged for using the word.

Of course, it comes as no surprise to hear further acknowledgement of the importance ISIL attaches to the power of words. In the obscene game of terror and manipulation played with the civilians it kidnaps and kills, each hostage is “encouraged” – we can but speculate on the form this encouragement takes – to blame his imminent murder on his own government. John Cantlie, a British captive who fears he merely awaits his turn, has allegedly been “persuaded” to develop this bogus theme in an article for Dabiq, an online magazine produced by those preparing to decapitate him. It is as if ISIL were a thoughtful and legally constituted political entity rather than a mob of serial murderers with online skills.

So on one level, the French government is right to promote a derogatory term for those who believe it is justifiable to slaughter civilians and prisoners of war as if the Geneva Convention were some effete middle-class self-indulgence, not to mention the pursuit of a bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing.

But vulnerable teenagers, courted by online recruiters to the extremist cause, are assured that western media reports are false. Lured online, in much the same way others are groomed by predatory sex abusers, they quickly learn to believe whatever they are told. Only Syrian soldiers kick a severed head about as if it were a football, they are told. We may seem like brutal monsters, the underlying message goes, but our actions amount to legitimate self-defence.

These arguments fall flat as soon as we remember ISIL supporters’ various boasts on social media networks, with some of the vilest contributions to the war of words coming from western recruits.

But that does not explain fully why the French want the media to refer to Daesh, or indeed why the extremists themselves find it so objectionable.

Recently a group of British Muslim leaders asked David Cameron’s government to stop using Islamic State, arguing that it legitimised terrorists with no honourable place in Islam. But they did not recommend Daesh as a substitute.

The term derives from an Arabic acronym for Al Dawla Al Islamiyah fi Al Iraq wa Al Sham. Yet this translates as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham, the latter being a term for Syria or the Levant.

A senior official of the Muslim Council of Britain with no personal command of Arabic, told me he had “asked around” and been told Daesh also implied “darkness”.

Britain’s Independent newspaper brings us closer, saying a rough translation of a form of the word Daesh could be “to tread underfoot, trample down, crush”. The definition not only describes ISIL methods with some accuracy; does it not also reflect the way some of its adherents present them?

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National