What’s in a name? The true meaning of the ISIS name and the real threat associated with it

Photo: What’s in a name? The true meaning of the ISIS name and the real threat associated with it / Arabic region

By Claude Salhani - Trend:

In the general confusion that befell Iraq in the past week or so, there is added perplexity over the name of the takfiri group fighting to install an Islamic state in the Middle East.

One reason put forward by some in the west is that these people want to install an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, as the name indicates. Fair enough. However, what many in the West seem to ignore is that the Syria in question is not the country we see today when we look it up on an atlas or on Google Earth.

As some readers may have noticed there seems to be two ways in which the group is referred to in English: Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

In Arabic of course neither words - "Syria" nor "Levant" -- are used. In Arabic it is called "Dawlat Islamiya al-Iraq wa as-Sham."

The closest one can translate the word "Sham" into English is "Greater Syria."

Many in the West are fooled by the use of the word "Syria," and may fail to see the real dimensions of the threat because they think of Syria in the modern geographic sense, the Syria that one finds on modern maps. On those maps the name of the modern day country, Syria, is referred to in Arabic as "Sourya," or "Souriya."

Whereas most Middle Easterners will think of Greater Syria when it is called "Sham" or "as-Sham," or yet, "Bilad as-Sham," the latter meaning "countries of Syria." Note it says "countries," using the plural.

In English the word Levant is used. It does an adequate job describing the geographic location of the region in question however it lacks the political implications.

So what is the difference?

Modern Syria is bordered by Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan and Israel to the south and Lebanon to the southwest. Greater Syria incorporates all of the above, and then some.

"This is what "Syria" means in the mind of Middle Easterners, says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and author of the respected blog SyriaComment.com.

"If we can teach people that so many Arabs still think of Syria as Greater Syria, they will begin to understand the extent to which Sykes-Picot remains challenged in the region," said Landis.

Sykes-Picot, of course refers to the secret agreement drawn up by a British (Sir Mark Sykes) and a French (Francois George-Picot) diplomat at the close of Word War I dividing the spoils of the Ottoman Empires between Britain and France by drawing straight lines in the sand.

To this day many Arabs refuse to accept that concept and will think of Syria as Greater Syria. Some will go so far as to include the Arab countries of North Africa - which from the Nile to the Euphrates forms "the Fertile Crescent," the symbol of many Muslim countries from Tunisia to Turkey. Some go as far as including the island of Cyprus, saying it represents the star next to the crescent.

Indeed, the threat is so serious to all the countries of the region that Iran said it would not oppose a U.S. military intervention if the Americans were to target the Islamists who have embarked on a rampage of horror and looting across Iraq.

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Claude Salhani is senior editor at Trend Agency in Baku, Azerbaijan. He is a specialist on the Middle East, Central Asia, terrorism and politicized Islam. You can follow him on Twitter @claudesalhani

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