Daesh vs Islamic State in Prospect
Professor Grayling: I understand your reasons for advocating the use of Daesh. I hope you’ll forgive me if Prospect does not at this point follow. It’s not just that Islamic State is established as a name, and I have generally followed the principle that things or people should be able to call themselves what they like (and if they have chosen something grandiose, that will be exposed as hollow).
I am sceptical, too, whether the supposed insult does in fact have any offensive power against the people it is supposed to be insulting.
More than that, though, I mind being pushed into a foreign language—and so diminishing the impact and notoriety of the group to English audiences—at the point when we are trying to summon up support to do something about them. If you are balancing the sense of threat in the wider public conjured up by the use of “Islamic State” against the supposed legitimacy it gives to either part of that two-word claim, I’d go with the former.
Bronwen Maddox is Editor of Prospect
In the record of his teachings known as the Analects, Confucius is recorded as recommending a “rectification of names,” that is, using language with clarity and accuracy. In line with this excellent advice, let us call “Islamic State” by what its Arab opponents call it: Daesh—a contraction of its full Arabic name ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fil Iraq wa Sham—which Daesh dislikes because it sounds too like another Arabic word meaning “destroyer.” And let us—even more importantly—call by its name what action against Daesh should be recognised as: an international police operation to extirpate a criminal gang of murderers and vandals.
A serious point attaches to this last. To call action against Daesh “war” is to dignify the organisation too far. It would like to carve out a state in which it could realise its vision of what a genuinely Islamic dispensation should be like—it does not think that the Sunni versions of an Islamic state in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia come up to scratch, and its violent hostility to the Shia version in Iran puts this latter beyond the pale. But it is not a state, and its violence does not constitute civil war because it is not a section of the population of either Iraq or Syria in conflict with its fellow citizens. On no definition of “war” as properly defined is it engaged in war. It is engaged in crime. It is an international brigade of killers on the loose in other people’s countries; a self-bred infection.
Politicians spend their time cleaning up after the last war their country fought. The United States did not venture military action for a long time after Vietnam, waiting for the wounds to heal. The fresher wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan make its current leadership reluctant to put “boots on the ground”; consequently they do not engage the new threat properly. But as the consensus of expert opinion suggests, the problem of Daesh requires a combination of actions: political and diplomatic activity, and interdiction of Daesh’s financial and logistical resources, yes; but also serious boots-on-the-ground work. This last should be seen as, and described as, a police action. It is not war, but a matter of stopping violent criminals and rooting out their base of activity.
The need to put an end to Daesh is urgent. It is incontinently determined in its aims and practices, which makes it very dangerous. Warnings from senior British military sources that they are trying to get nuclear explosives, and reports of the capture of Russian smugglers who have offered to provide them with nuclear materials, suggest an inevitability: given both the utter incontinence of Daesh’s methods, and the unscrupulousness of the world’s black market in arms, the longer Daesh exists the closer we approach the possibility of their exploding a “dirty bomb” in a major capital. So far their massacres have numbered in the hundreds; then it would be—will be—in the tens of thousands.
“There is no excuse left for not dealing with Daesh. It is a band of murderers, vandals and rapists”
It is a profoundly sad business having to enjoin action of this kind. I resent being made to feel, by men of violence, that they have to be answered in kind. The use of arms in any human affairs is a mark of failure; if one’s only answer to a point of view is to punch someone in the face, it represents utter poverty of resource. But there is a point after which the necessity of this ugly remedy is the only one available—as it might be, after repeated punches to one’s own face, with no chance of reasoning left.
After the latest atrocities—the Russian airliner over Sinai, and the attack on people enjoying their Friday night in beautiful civilised Paris—there is no excuse left for not dealing with Daesh. It is a band of murderers, vandals and rapists. It gives the phrase “organised crime” its full weight. Organised police action in response is both right and necessary. Framed in these terms, there is not much to argue about: in light of the extreme danger Daesh represents, neither is there time for further argument anyway.
I hope some of the ringleaders will be put on trial. That would be the best mark of a victory over what Daesh represents, and of what our own best hopes are for civilisation, which is what they seek to negate.