To me, it seems strange and jarring that although pretty much all Anglophone media outlets talk about IS, ISIS, or Islamic State, Obama and Cameron continue to refer to it as ISIL. Is there any reason for this?

This Daily Mail story says David Cameron does so because "Islamic State" is offensive to Islam and Muslims. But this seems a strange explanation to me, given that the acronym ISIL still has the words "Islamic State", so how is that not equally offensive?

I can find no credible explanation for why Obama does so, except this YouTube conspiracy-theory video, which unfortunately comes up as one of the top results.

  • more credible explanation? Simply "bushism", I think.
    – Matt
    Nov 22, 2015 at 7:14
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    Obama wants IS to take over Israel? What do his zionist conspiracy overlords say about that? Have the Illuminati agreed to that? I got to talk to the secret reptile government. Their underlings are awfully uncoordinated lately.
    – Philipp
    Nov 23, 2015 at 16:33
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    What is the point of referencing a conspiracy theory in this question?
    – user1530
    Nov 24, 2015 at 3:02
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    @blip: To highlight that this question is especially worth answering, if only to combat this conspiracy theory. Like it or not, that conspiracy theory pretty much dominates the Google search results if you search "Why Obama says ISIL". Hopefully THIS page will gradually move up the search results.
    – user2212
    Nov 24, 2015 at 4:30
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    @KennyLJ fair enough, though note that is likely an uphill battle. I'd hate for this site to just be post after post trying to combat YouTube conspiracy theories. :)
    – user1530
    Nov 24, 2015 at 4:31

3 Answers 3


The reason for the disagreement about how to call the world's least favorite terrorist group is that the group changed its own name several times and because their native tongue isn't English, so there are disagreements about the correct translation:

  • 2006-2013: ISI (Islamic State of Iraq), sometimes refered to as "al-Qaeda in Iraq"
  • 2013-2014: DAIISH or Daesh (ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī 'l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām) which can be translated either as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) depending on which Arabic-English dictionary you are using. The Washington Post had an interesting article about this.
  • 2014-today: IS (Islamic State)

The argument that calling the terrorist organization "Islamic State" might be perceived as offensive because it implies they represent all of Islam is comprehensible, but that's how the group currently calls itself. And they really seem to believe that they represent all of Islam (and those who disagree with them are not "true" Muslims, in their opinion, so they don't count). The alternative to using their self-given name would be to make up some new term for them like EPISMEE (Evil People in Iraq, Syria and other countries in the Middle East and now even in Europe), but good luck getting that to catch on.

So you shouldn't interpret too much into which name someone is using.

  • President Hollande of France and most media in France use Daesh as the name identifying the ISIS (or ISIL). Also used in Francophone media (France, Belgium, Québec) is EI (État Islamique or Islamic State).
    – MasB
    Nov 23, 2015 at 20:59
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    For what it's worth, I've seen a lot of Facebook posts starting to call them Daesh. Which really is the name that makes the most sense - I'm pretty sure the CIA is translated as "CIA" even in other languages. Most articles I read that use foreign acronyms say something like "XVZ, which stands for Department of Foobar in Xvian" So use their own acronym, even if the expansion doesn't make sense in other languages.
    – Bobson
    Nov 23, 2015 at 22:38
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    So would you say that Obama continues to say "ISIL" not to make any special point, but just because that was what he had always called it?
    – user2212
    Nov 24, 2015 at 4:34
  • @KennyLJ Yes, you shouldn't interpret too much into it which name someone is using.
    – Philipp
    Nov 24, 2015 at 8:52
  • This doesn't answer the question of why Obama and various other world leaders specifically favour ISIL (particularly given that the press and public seem to favour ISIS, IS or Daesh) Nov 24, 2015 at 18:58

According to the Daesh there are two sides. Muslims who pledge alliance to Islam and non-Muslims. That even goes as far as counting Al-Qaeda as non-Muslim because there members don't pledge alliance to the caliph.

To the extend that Daesh succeeds in convincing Salafi Muslims that they have a valid caliph those Muslims have a duty to join Daesh. Western leaders don't want that Daesh succeeds in that propaganda goal. As such they don't like to say "Islamic state" which indicates that all Muslims belong to it as Daesh says but rather prefer names that speak the group as being defined by the region in which it's operating.

It's a bit like the discussion of whether to call the inherentance tax death tax. On the margin calling it inherentance tax supports the instiution while calling it death tax weakens the organisation. Calling Daesh "Islamic state" strengthens it and that's we they call themselves that way.

Obama doesn't call North Korea the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" which happens to be the name the state give itself. If he would do so, people would complain because that would be friendly towards North Korea. Calling Daesh "Islamic state" is as friendly to it as calling North Korea "Democratic People's Republic of Korea".

  1. The group has changed its name frequently.
  2. There are disagreements on how to translate the different aliases.
  3. Different names carry different connotations. For example, the Islamic State does not represent all Muslims, and most do not want to recognise it as a state. Daesh, by comparison, is an Arabic slang insult for those who don't respect the opinions of others.

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