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ISIS Is Not the Islamic State It Fiercely Claims to Be

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Nat Hentoff

I approach Wikipedia cautiously as to whether its abundant information on a multitude of subjects is complete and authoritative. But I salute the site for its numerous citations concerning the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — specifically the “criticism of the name ‘Islamic State’ and ‘caliphate’ declaration” (found under its entry for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

Even The New York Times seemed to accept ISIS’ self-description on its March 11 front page: “Islamic State Finds New Frontier in Chaotic Libya.”

But Wikipedia, citing a Washington Post article, alerts us to this penetrating truth:

“There’s another name for the group that has brutally captured large swaths of Syria and Iraq: ‘al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria’ or more simply, QSIS” (“Meet ‘QSIS’: A new twist in what to call the extremist group rampaging in Iraq and Syria,” Adam Taylor, The Washington Post, Aug. 26, 2014).

“That new name comes not from the extremists themselves, but from Egypt, where a leading Islamic authority, Dar al-Ifta, has asked people to stop using the term ‘Islamic State.’”

Ibrahim Negm, an Islamic expert, explains to Egypt’s Middle East News Agency that the name change is important, as it “aims to correct the image of Islam that has been tarnished in the West because of (ISIS’) criminal acts, and to exonerate humanity from such crimes that defy natural instincts and spreads hate between people” (“Islamic authority: Extremists no ‘Islamic State,’” The Associated Press, Aug. 24, 2014).

So how do the members of ISIS feel when they are not referred to as an “Islamic State”?

Dig this Iraqi mother’s account: “They will cut your tongue out even if you call them ISIS — you have to say ‘Islamic State’ ” (“Islamic State crisis: Mother fears for son at Mosul school,”, Sept. 29, 2014).

Not only was that woman’s story cited by Wikipedia, but so was this: “Politicians should stop using its preferred name (ISIS) to help halt the radicalization of British Muslims, leading groups have said” (“ISIS should be called the ‘Un-Islamic State’: British Muslims call on David Cameron to stop spread of extremist propaganda,” Andrew Griffin, The Independent (U.K.), Sept. 14, 2014).

“A group of prominent Muslims has written to David Cameron to ask that he uses a different name for the group, and to lead a national debate on what it should be called.”

What do they suggest?

The letter simply says: “We propose that ‘Un-Islamic State’ (UIS) could be an accurate and fair alternative name to describe this group and its agenda.”

The letter was signed by some of the most respected members of Britain’s Islamic community, including the president of the Islamic Society of Britain, the Association of British Muslims and the Association of Muslim Lawyers.

Moreover, citing various articles, Wikipedia points out that “the ‘Islamic State’ is mocked on social media websites such as Twitter and YouTube, with the use of hashtags, mock recruiting ads, fake news articles and YouTube videos.”

Surely The New York Times is aware of this negative reaction to ISIS as an “Islamic State,” so why does it so glibly identify the group as such in its articles?

Not only does the Times make ISIS the opposite of what it is; Wikipedia cites a column from The Atlantic by an academic who is not offended by referring to ISIS as the Islamic State:

“Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, ‘embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion’ that neglects ‘what their religion has historically and legally required.’

“Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an ‘interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition’ ” (“What ISIS Really Wants,” Graeme Wood, The Atlantic, March 2015).

That should bring smiles to ISIS leaders.

Contrarily, “Prime Minister Tony Abbott told the U.N. Security Council Australia’s response to Islamic State will be ‘utterly unflinching’ ” (“Islamic State: PM Tony Abbott tells UN Australia’s response to terrorist group will be ‘utterly unflinching,’” Michael Vincent,, Sept. 25, 2014).

In his speech to the United Nations, Abbott was blunt when describing the phrase “Islamic State”: “To use this term is to dignify a death cult; a death cult that, in declaring itself a caliphate, has declared war on the world.”

In any case, its assertion that it’s the “Islamic State” gives ISIS, however brutal, a false significance in the Islamic history that it prizes.

While ISIS continues to generate growing, widespread fear as it recruits youngsters of various nations, there are different opinions among American officials regarding its danger to the United States.

Here, Wikipedia cites a New York Times story that further clarifies this:

“Daniel Benjamin, who served as the State Department’s top counterterrorism adviser during Mr. Obama’s first term, said the public discussion about the ISIS threat has been a ‘farce,’ with ‘members of the cabinet and top military officers all over the place describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified’ ” (“Struggling to Gauge ISIS Threat, Even as U.S. Prepares to Act,” Mark Mazzetti, Eric Schmitt and Mark Landler, The New York Times, Sept. 10, 2014).

Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, however, “said that ISIS poses an ‘imminent threat to every interest we have.’”

Because I turn 90 in June, I may well not live to experience how ISIS’ momentum and growth will end. But if I were president — as if a pro-life atheist could ever be the president — I would struggle mightily and persistently to get congressional authorization to set up a new alliance to destroy ISIS.

Don’t worry, though. I doubt if any presidential candidate would gain office by being that honest with an electorate wary of further military operations in the Middle East.

If any readers disagree with the conclusion I recommend, I’d be very interested in learning how you would proceed against ISIS from here on.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.


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