It doesn’t matter what word the politicians use, it’s Joe on the Street who counts.
By now, you’ve probably heard the term “Daesh” used by some politicians as they talk about the moment’s biggest-ticket Mid East belligerent, the war in Syria and November’s Paris terrorist attacks. That’s great, but we’re living in an age when everyone knows that spin is the politician’s native tongue, and this affects the trust we put in anything that comes out of a leader’s mouth. So although part of me doesn’t want to be bossy, the better part of me wants you to say “Daesh” too.
Why? Back in January, then-Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said that “Daesh hates being referred to by this term, and what they don’t like has an instinctive appeal to me.” I’m with Tony on this one, but there’s a much more important factor here: Using any variant of the term “Islamic state” not only legitimizes Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s self-declared caliphate in the Western mind, but it also helps to conflate Islam with terrorism. And if we’re going to make any progress on the home front, then that’s got to stop.
I’m not a commando or even a mercenary. I don’t carry a rifle on the day-to-day; and I’m definitely not going to be able to lob a grenade down the back of al-Baghdadi’s shirt. But knocking his self-styled caliphate’s status down a notch or two may just advance the fight in other ways. First, the consensus in some circles that being a Muslim automatically makes you a terrorist encourages and legitimizes anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric. And that makes it really hard to convince disenfranchised Muslims from Paris to Toronto that they have a place in our society, especially at a time when we should be warmly welcoming traumatised Syrian refugees. There’s a feeling out there that every Islamophobic attack increases the likelihood that followers of Islam, feeling rejected by us, will turn to Daesh and take up arms against the “infidel West.” Whether or not that’s absolutely true, those at the top of Daesh understand social media, social movements and the value of propaganda. Daesh is rich, tech-savvy, mediagenic as hell and highly motivated to make those outcasts feel like part of an exclusive club, then use them as Al-Baghdadi sees fit. Blowing up ancient monuments throughout the occupied territories shows that Daesh also understands the value of eliminating a people’s cultural touchstones while you’re trying to consolidate power. This is why statues get pulled down and replaced every time there’s a regime change somewhere. One of the biggest examples of this has to be China’s Cultural Revolution of 1966–76, where traditional ways were brutally expunged in order to solidify Maoism as the cultural face of China. In theory, you leave ’em without a culture, and they’ll take up a new one that you can thoroughly dictate.
Look, every time a US drone strike takes out a wedding somewhere in the Middle East, our side’s job gets harder. Ditto every time a woman in a hijab gets punched up in Toronto, a mosque gets torched or some idiot in a mask goes on YouTube and threatens to kill an Arab per week. Because postmodern war isn’t fought solely in pitched gunfights, but also on TV screens, YouTube channels and social media platforms. This is why Anonymous’ strikes against Daesh’s online activities have been so important: They were a stab at the group’s recruitment efforts. Likewise, every politico or broadcaster in the West can call ISIS “Daesh” if he wants to, but that will never have the seismic impact of a widespread grassroots change. And again, boots on the ground cannot win this thing alone. It’s just not that kind of war.
I’m not advocating ditching our guns and leaving the Levant to burn. But I do know that everything the West has done in this area since the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan has seemingly upped the ante on insurgencies, so something has to change. And yes, part of that would likely be a quarter-million troops in theatre for the next decade or two to get rid of Daesh, but a more nuanced approach vis-à-vis order and nation-building seems key in that scenario — you know, so we don’t end up with yet another group of crazies to deal with just a little further down the road. Again, I’m not military, so there’s no role for me there. All I can do is try to help shift the rhetoric here at home, support a few charities and keep up the pressure on my government to help change things and secure a better future for everyone.