What should we call the terrorists?

A little over a year ago, The Boston Globe published a piece by Zaba Khan on why we shouldn’t use the name ISIS. For obvious reasons, it’s now circulating again, bringing a really important issue to the fore. For one, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham is exactly what we refuse to see the group as: Khan quotes President Obama as saying, “ISIL is not Islamic . . . and [is] certainly not a state.” Referring to it as such gives it it unwarranted legitimacy.

The term Islamic State probably has other unintended consequences for the anti-ISIS cause as well. When we use the same word Islam to refer to a group of terrorists and to completely innocent and unrelated Muslims, it’s so easy to mentally conflate the two. This happens way too much.

What’s a better alternative to ISIS? Khan writes that in 2014, the French government announced that it would refer to the group as Daesh, which drastically abbreviates the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. John Kerry and President Obama have reportedly begun using the term as wellDaesh is also a bit of a stab at the group though, since its Arabic translation can mean “to trample down and crush” or “a bigot who imposes his view on others.” Not surprisingly, the term Daesh is not popular with its members.

The Globe article also mentions that we know much about language’s influence on thought. Khan cites research demonstrating that while speaking a second language, our automatic cognitive processes are slightly more inhibited, allowing us to deliberate a little more (at least in the context of a controlled lab setting using standardize gain/loss decision making tasks). She brings this research up to suggest that if policymakers used the Arabic word Daesh, instead of the English translation, ISIS, they would effectively be “thinking” in a second language, and might therefore be freed from some of the native-language irrationality. This seems a bit of a stretch. The policymakers would not be learning Arabic; they would be using a single Arabic word in an English context. Effects of single words on cognition are usually minimal, if measurable at all. Although there’s no evidence that using Daesh will encourage us to think less impulsively about the group, it may still be an effective name. There’s only one way to find out.



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