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Opinion

Naming the Islamist militants in the news: ISIS or ISIL?

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Iraq,Syria,Terrorism,Islamic Jihad,Middle East,Media,Charles Hoskinson

Islamist militants have surged to control in northern Iraq, upending the Obama administration's efforts to ignore what happens in that country and giving multiple opportunities for media pundits who have never served in the region to suggest solutions they won't have to carry out.

But enough of that minor stuff. There's a more important question to resolve: What do you call them?

Ad-dawla al-Islamiyya fil-Iraq wa-ash-Sham, as the Sunni Islamist militant group is known in Arabic, operates in Syria and Iraq, which suggests an easy translation: The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

But "Syria" is a concept as well as a modern nation, and there were indications that the group's ambitions were broader than its current borders, more in keeping with the concept of a "Greater Syria" that also includes Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan, as well as parts of southern Turkey. Those ambitions inspired the Associated Press to decide that the group should be called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, using the traditional Western term for that region.

ISIL, as the AP notes, is also the United Nations' preference. It's also what President Obama preferred in his remarks on the group on Thursday.

The BBC takes a middle approach, using the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, but keeping the popular "ISIS" acronym.

Hassan Hassan, a columnist for the Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper The National, offers five reasons on his blog for why the easiest translation is the most correct. Among them: ISIS is at its heart a merger of two groups that were operating in Iraq and Syria (the nation, not the concept) and only later expanded its aims.

Further, "al-Sham" is the colloquial term for "Syria" in Syrian Arabic — it's what the Syrians call themselves.

That should settle it, right?

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