The BBC, the MPs and the semantics of ISIS terrorism

Those without access to the Times may have missed the gem published on July 2nd under the headline “BBC: we must be fair with Islamic State“.Tony Hall

“The head of the BBC has refused demands from 120 MPs to drop the term Islamic State on the ground that its coverage of the terrorist group must be impartial.

Lord Hall of Birkenhead, the director- general, warned that an alternative name for the militants was “pejorative” and said that the broadcaster needed to “preserve the BBC’s impartiality”.

The background to the story is frankly no less bizarre:

“MPs want the corporation to drop the label Islamic State to deprive the extremists of associations with Islam or statehood.

Rehman Chishti, the Tory MP who has led calls for a change of name, said last night that the BBC’s response in a letter to him was “unacceptable” and criticised its “excuse” for rejecting the term Daesh, an Arabic acronym seen by Isis as derogatory. […]

Mr Chishti said that many Muslims would be offended by the BBC’s use of the word “Islamic” in the name of a group responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent civilians and the beheading of western hostages.”

One imagines that many Muslims would actually be more offended by ISIS’ hijacking of the term ‘Islamic’ to excuse its violent atrocities than by BBC terminology but apparently a letter from British MPs to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not yet in the post.

The article goes on:

“In a letter to the MP, seen by The Times, Lord Hall said that the word Daesh risked giving the “impression of support” for the group’s opponents and “would not preserve the BBC’s impartiality”. Daesh was pejorative and the BBC would not be using it in its output, he added. Instead, he pledged to “redouble our efforts” to use caveats such as the “Islamic State group”. […]

In his response to Mr Chishti, Lord Hall said that the BBC would use terms such as “the Islamic State group” to “distinguish it from an actual, recognised state”. He added: “We will also continue to use other qualifiers when appropriate, eg extremists, militants, fighters etc. To avoid overuse we will also usually revert to IS after one mention of the Islamic State group.”

The director-general erroneously claimed that the term Daesh was not an Arabic acronym, before correctly adding that it was “a pejorative name coined in Arabic by its enemies, including Assad supporters and other opponents in Syria”.”

Readers are told that:

“According to the Arabic translator Alice Guthrie, Isis dislikes the fact that Daesh sounds similar to the word “daes”, meaning someone who crushes or tramples things underfoot.”

Alice Guthrie has written a much more comprehensive explanation of the term Daesh:

“So what does Daesh really mean? Well, D.A.E.SH is a transliteration of the Arabic acronym formed of the same words that make up I.S.I.S in English: ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’, or ‘لدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام’ (‘al-dowla al-islaamiyya fii-il-i’raaq wa-ash-shaam’). That’s the full name chosen by the organisation, and – when used in full – it’s definitely how they want to be referred to. In Arabic, just like in English, that phrase consists of six words, four of which make it into the acronym (‘in’ and ‘and’ are omitted) : ‘دولة dowla’ (state) + ‘إسلامية islaamiyya’ (Islamic) + ‘عراق i’raaq’ (Iraq) + ‘شام  shaam’. That last word, ‘shaam’, is variously used in Arabic to denote Damascus (in Syrian dialect) ‘Greater Syria’ / the Levant, or Syria – hence the US-preferred acronym ISIL, with the L standing for Levant.” 

Quite how British MPs arrived at the conclusion that the use of an acronym which includes the Arabic word ‘islaamiyya’ is less offensive than the employment of the English word ‘Islamic’ is – to this writer at least – a mystery.

Equally unclear is why the use of the word Islamic in the term ‘Islamic State’ is allegedly controversial and offensive but its use in the titles of other terrorist organisations such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad or Ḥarakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah (more often known by the acronym Hamas) has apparently escaped the notice of British MPs.

Of course the BBC’s self-imposed need to “be impartial” about a vicious terrorist organization speaks volumes in itself – as does its stubborn employment of euphemisms such as “extremists, militants, fighters” in place of the word which most accurately and clearly describes an organization engaged in terrorizing the populations of large parts of the Middle East and beyond. Frankly though, it would have been unrealistic to expect any different a response from an organization which finds the use of the word terror too “loaded”.  

 

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