Why branding ISIS matters

September 11, 2014

By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment 

     “ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State — or whatever you want to call it.”

     That’s how one NPR reporter referred to the new face of terror this week as the United States prepares for another long, hard struggle against a brutal enemy of humanity.

     What’s in name? After all, evil by any other name remains evil.

     When it comes to terrorism, however, branding matters. ISIS leaders may read “Islam for Dummies” to fake the world into thinking they know something about Islam (according to news reports), but they are no dummies when it comes to waging a war for the hearts and minds of young Muslims.

     After a murderous sweep across Iraq in June, ISIS declared an Islamic “caliphate” — and renamed themselves the “Islamic State.” At first most media outlets stuck with ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) — both acronyms that obscure the “Islamic” part.

     But “ISIS” and “ISIL” have been gradually supplanted by “Islamic State” in a growing number of news stories and commentaries about the conflict.

     The media drumbeat that our enemy is an “Islamic State” is a significant propaganda victory for ISIS, an extremist group that seeks to recruit young Muslims to help “restore” what ISIS misleadingly describes as an Islamic order that will unite all Muslims.

     The power of the term “Islamic State” is clearly not lost on governments organizing to fight ISIS. The Obama administration, for example, uses “ISIL” and avoids uttering the words “Islamic State.”

     Not surprisingly, Muslim leaders in the U.S. and around the world are especially disturbed and outraged by the appropriation of “Islamic State” by militant thugs. As Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, explained last week in a column for Time.com:

     “Every time we refer to ISIS as the ‘Islamic State,’ call its members ‘jihadists’ or in any way grant it the religious legitimacy that it so desperately seeks, we simultaneously boost its brand, tarnish the image of Islam and further marginalize the vast majority of Muslims who are disgusted by the group’s un-Islamic actions.”

     American media outlets, of course, are free to print the self-description used by militants in Iraq and Syria — even when that description offends and disturbs people of faith. Consider how many Christians are repelled by news accounts of the “Christian Identity” movement, a hate-filled, white supremacy group that is antithetical to the teachings of the Gospels. Or how many Baptists cringe every time they read “Westboro Baptist Church” in the headlines.

     But media outlets are also free to make judgment calls about what best serves the public interest. Nine years ago, for example, many newspapers declined to publish the Danish cartoons that denigrated the Muslim faith. And today, a growing number of newspapers are opting to stop using the term “Redskins” when reporting on the Washington, D.C. football team.

     Given the high stakes in the fight against ISIS, I can only hope that news organizations will consider following the lead of The New York Times, which has stuck with “ISIS” even as many other news outlets have switched to “Islamic State.”

     Call ISIS what you will, there is no “Islamic State.”

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: www.newseuminstitute.org/religious-freedom-center Email:chaynes@newseum.org

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