Often in news articles, I see that IS are referred to as "so-called" Islamic State. For example, in a BBC News article:

On Bastille Day last year, along the coast in Nice, more than 80 people were killed when a lorry was driven into celebrating crowds on the seafront in an attack claimed by so-called Islamic State.

Why is this prefix used?

  • 14
    It's worth noting that often "so-called Islamic State" is encountered in media from the BBC (I've suggested an edit to attribute your quote, which does indeed come from the BBC, and it's always helpful to provide a link to any quote you use if you can when posting here). tim's answer has a link from The Guardian to explain why the BBC in particular use this phrasing.
    – Aurora0001
    Aug 21, 2017 at 12:52
  • 4
    It's also a subtle way of de-legitimizing their claim of State status
    – user7754
    Aug 24, 2017 at 5:51

5 Answers 5


The name Islamic State is a claim to a global caliphate.

This claim is rejected by everybody else, from western leaders to Muslim leaders, to other Islamic extremists.

"so-called" is added to make it clear that this is not an objective or descriptive term, but a self-chosen label which does not reflect the true nature of a group. It happens with other groups and organizations as well, such as "so called alt-right" to make it clear that it is a white supremacist propaganda term, or "so called GDR" to make it clear that it is not actually a democratic republic.

  • 7
    I always thought "so called GDR" was labelled "so called" because the country was not recognised by the west. The Soviet Union was not referred to as "so called" despite not being an actual union of soviets (=democratic worker's councils).
    – gerrit
    Aug 21, 2017 at 13:06
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    @gerrit the GDR was recognised as an independent country by most everyone. That said I've never heard them referred to as "the so-called GDR" in any language.
    – jwenting
    Aug 21, 2017 at 13:45
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    @jwenting Bild (the right-wing west-German tabloid) systematically referred to it as "Die sogenannte DDR". As for recognition, that may be a question for History. Apparently it depends on the time in history, before September 1973 it wasn't recognised much; after, it was.
    – gerrit
    Aug 21, 2017 at 13:48
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    @gerrit Yes, Bild used that term, but that was a propaganda term in its own right, only one faction actually used it. "So-called IS" seems a little bit more neutral than that, just making the point that basically no-one uses it - bar the so-called IS itself. Aug 22, 2017 at 9:57
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    @AlexanderKosubek die sogeannte DDR is an extremely widespread term: I'd be surprised if any native speaker of German was unfamiliar with it. It wasn't only the "demokratisch" part which was "so-called" but also the "Republik" (It was not recognized as a legitimate state by most of the "West" (i.e. the US-/WW2 ally-aligned world)) and even the "deutsch" part: the idea of a single German state was still alive, i.e. the FRG and GDR couldn't both exist. Aug 24, 2017 at 7:28

Because they (Daesh) claim that their government is "Islamic State", but they consider most of Muslims as polytheist or infidel, and on the other hand, the majority of Muslims all over the world consider them to be fake Muslims.

We face with two facts:

On the one hand they (Daesh) are known in the media as "Islamic State", so in order to talk about them one will inevitably call them "Islamic State". On the other hand, they are not really an "Islamic State" (not Islamic nor a state), so one cannot call them "Islamic State".

As a result, one calls them the so-called "Islamic State".

Update: this part is explanation of "they are not really Islamic State". In fact this is my deleted comment that answers a deleted comment that call Daesh as "strict Islam":

No. They are not "strict Islam". It's cartoon of Islam, not strict Islam. They read only war verses of Quran, not verses like:

Say, "O People of the Scripture, come to a word that is equitable between us and you - that we will not worship except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah. But if they turn away, then say "Bear witness that we are Muslims.

Qur'an 3:64

...nor verses like...

There shall be no compulsion in acceptance of the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong.

Qur'an 2:256

They also don't consider many other verses that forbid killing people. The Qur'an as a book should be taken as a whole.

  • Not just the "majority of Muslims" but more importantly, an enormous number of the top Muslim scholars and theologians have refuted the ideology of the so-called Islamic State. This is interesting, although the letter itself can be tough to understand. Aug 24, 2017 at 12:19

This is a specifically BBC policy, that some other outlets are following.

The general policy at the BBC is to use the name for a group that is generally understood, and that the group itself uses. When Daesh were first expanding in Syria and Iraq, there were two names in somewhat widespread use: ISIS and ISIL, both of which are abbreviations of possible translations of Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. The BBC chose ISIS. Political leaders in the UK and US chose ISIL.

After Daesh had captured Mosul and declared independence the BBC started using "Islamic State". The organisation was clearly in control of territory. This seemed to be the term in widespread use.

In a radio interview, following the attack on the Tunisian beach resort of Sousse, David Cameron said:

I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State because it’s not an Islamic state. What it is, is an appalling, barbarous regime … It’s a perversion of the religion of Islam and many Muslims listening to this programme will recoil every time they hear the words Islamic State … 'So-called' or Isil is better. Source

There were other complaints to the BBC, but it seems that the BBC did not want drop the term "Islamic State" completely. So it was decided (presumably by someone quite high-up, perhaps James Harding, head of BBC News) that presenters would prefix "so-called" before "Islamic State" for at least the first time each journalist uses the expression in a report.

Other news outlets have followed suit, the BBC has a lot of influence on British Media.


French middle east specialist 'Jean Pierre Filiu' explains that it is one of the goal of their propaganda towards western countries to appear as

  1. a state, and
  2. the state where any good muslim should go. (explained in French in this radio program :

He notes that this is the first time that a terror group name is translated into western languages (IS for english, Etat Islamique in french, ...), while other groups name like 'Al-Qaeda' (litterally 'The Basis'), were never translated. So, western media have followed the policy in 2 rounds:

  1. let's translate the name : we understand what it means, so let's go, and
  2. Probably this was a little bit stupid, falling directly in their propaganda, let's add the 'so-called' before... No media made the choice of going back to the arabic word which has no particuliar other meaning than designing a terror group.
  • 3
    could you add a link to the statement(s) of this French specialist?
    – Federico
    Aug 22, 2017 at 11:32
  • 3
    Done, but as the source I remembered was a radio program in french... Probably you would find more in his books or on his blog on french newspaper LeMonde Some references are aviable to read in the English version of his wikipedia page, where he probably re-explains his views about the naming of Daesh Aug 22, 2017 at 14:26

The journalists are using term 'so-called state' to prevent controversies about the word 'state' which is used to describe a geopolitical unit. ISIS as a government is not acknowledged by any western state (they are not even called 'partisans' or 'rebels', instead they are referred as 'terrorists').

Using the term 'Islamic State' without 'so-called' could be interpreted, as if a specific journalist would consider they as a government that at least could be a candidate for acknowledgement. Saying 'so-called' makes it sure that you distance yourself from considering them a legitimate government, or sympathize with their claims.

In international politics, you need to be very careful about the names.

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