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Why we should stop using "ISIS" and "Islamic State"

On Writing

Why we should stop using "ISIS" and "Islamic State"

Stephen H. Provost

I've consistently spoken out in favor of the right to self-identification. If people want to go by specific names or adopt a certain label for themselves, they should be able to do so without any squawking or squabbling from the peanut gallery.

It's not Cassius Clay, it's Muhammad Ali. Stephanie Joanne Angelina Germanotta goes by Lady Gaga. And no matter how odd we might have though Prince's symbol name was back in the '90s, that was how he wanted to be identified. So be it. No matter how many times Sean Combs/Puff Daddy/P. Diddy changes his name, we've got to respect that, too. 

But I realized recently that there's important caveat to the right of self-identification: Regular, decent folks should get to choose what they want to be called. The bad guys? Not so much.

Naming rights

The "naming rights" craze for stadiums, bowl games and other major events has always made me cringe. Candlestick Park was always Candlestick Park to me until they tore it down. My wife, who lived for many years in San Diego, is of a similar mind: She refuses to call Jack Murphy Stadium by its new corporate name, even today. 

Back when the bowl-naming financial bonanza got started, nearly thirty years ago, I wrote a column about my refusal to include the corporate sponsor's name in news reports when referring to the Cotton Bowl or the Sugar Bowl. My reasoning? If Tostitos or Discover or some other corporate entity wanted to advertise in the newspaper, it should pay the newspaper for advertising space (heaven knows newspapers need the revenue these days!).

I was gratified when my editors backed me on that decision, even though it went against the grain of what most newspapers were - and still are - doing.

Shaming rights?

Still, while tongue-twisting corporate names like the Poulan Weedeater Independence Bowl and the MagicJack.com St. Petersburg Bowl are annoying in the extreme (trust me, folks, I couldn't make this stuff up), corporate sponsors don't necessarily fit the definition of "bad guys."

Maybe, however, one NFL owner does.

Should we really be referring to an NFL team by its nickname when that nickname focuses on the color of a person's skin - and is considered a racial slur by a large segment of the population? I don't think so, even though I covered a high school team with the same nickname a couple of decades ago, before I'd thought the matter through. Proponents of the name argue for "tradition," but a bad tradition is a lot worse than a good innovation.

A few publications have refused to use the name in print, as have a few scrupulous journalists. I've talked to some who eliminate all references to the nickname by simply referring to the team by its home city of Washington. Good for them. It shows you don't have to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of respect. Still, despite this, the vast majority of publications continue to use the nickname simply because that's what the franchise owner chooses to call the team.

Is that reason really good enough?

Propaganda rights?

Even worse is the willingness of many media outlets to let acknowledged terrorist groups self-identify - even when their names are inaccurate or offensive to a segment of the population. Or both.

The prime example of this is the continued use by some - both in the media and in the general population - of the acronym ISIS to describe a Middle East-based terrorist organization. CNN has been particularly stubborn on this, even though it's patently inaccurate: ISIS stands for "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria." This despite the fact that:

  • The vast majority of Muslims have repudiated it as patently un-Islamic.
  • It doesn't constitute a state in any sense that the term is generally used.
  • Its activities aren't confined to Iraq and Syria

Three inaccuracy strikes and you're out, right?

The Associated Press made some progress by calling it the "Islamic State group," but even that term legitimizes it - remember, this is a terrorist organization - by deferring to some perceived right of self-identification as the "Islamic State."

I'm sorry, call me crazy, but when you start decapitating people, leveling building and enslaving large populations, I think you ought to lose a few of your "rights."

Isis is, in fact, an ancient goddess who's still revered by some segments of the population. So perpetuating the use of this term amounts to valuing a terrorist group's right to self-identification ahead of both peaceful Muslims and peaceful devotees of Isis, both of whom should have a right not to have their reputations sullied in print.

Look at it this way: Would any media outlet call this group "CHRIST" or "The Christian State" if it chose to identify itself that way? I don't think so. Nor should it. 

Where your rights end

Continuing to use the term ISIS is not only inaccurate and irresponsible, but also extremely damaging. Associating this group with Islam legitimizes terrorists by allowing them to usurp the identity of a major religion - and use that conferred legitimacy to recruit naive and disenchanted Muslims. Beyond that, it risks implicitly encouraging a backlash against the vast majority of those who follow Islam and want absolutely nothing to do with terrorism.

The right of self-identification, like every other right, should never be taken as absolute. Former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." Certainly, this applies to rocket launchers as much as it does to fists. And the right to self-identification, even for law-abiding peaceful people, it's not a right enshrined in the Constitution. It's merely one being conferred in the course of our communication.

We need to stop conferring rights upon terrorist organizations. If prison inmates don't have the right to vote, terrorist groups shouldn't get a vote on what we call them.

A year ago, the French government decided to stop using terms like ISIS and Islamic State to describe the group in question, and British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Wednesday that he'd be doing the same thing. Both of them, along with a growing number of world leaders, favor of the Arabic term Daesh - which the group itself despises because it can be interpreted to mean "crush underfoot."

That's precisely what this group is doing to those who disagree with its radical and violent ideas. But instead of being sensitive to how innocent Muslims (and an Egyptian goddess whose worship predates this group's existence by five or six millennia) are being dragged through the mud, we're worried about the sensibilities of people who want to conquer, kill and enslave people.

That doesn't say much about our commitment to accuracy, and it says even less about our values.