John Kerry won’t call the Islamic State by its name anymore. Why that’s not a good idea.

Shadi Hamid and Will McCants write: Refusing to utter the Islamic State’s name … needlessly complicates the religious fight to discredit the organization. Muslims understandably feel that their religion is being hijacked. But there’s something odd about an American president or Secretary of State opining on what is and isn’t legitimately Islamic. Shouldn’t it go without saying that a murderous extremist group isn’t what Muslims are all about?

There is a place for Muslim apologetics — from Muslims. This is precisely what a group of prominent British figures did when they attempted to rebrand the Islamic State as “the Un-Islamic State.”

But when non-Muslim officials insert themselves into this debate, it sets a negative precedent. It lends itself easily to broader pronouncements on who the good, “moderate” Muslims are, in contrast to the “bad guys,” a category which presumably could include anyone who falls on the Islamist side of the spectrum, regardless of whether they’re actually “extreme.”

And when the West co-opts Muslim talking points about the “true” Islam, it makes it harder for Muslims in the Arab world to make the same claim. Western governments are widely loathed and lack credibility in the region, even when they take care to explain their policies. A 2006 study suggested Arab students’ views of American policy “worsened slightly” the longer they listened to U.S.-sponsored Radio Sawa and al-Hurra TV. When Western officials repeat religious criticisms of the Islamic State, they make it easier for the group’s sympathizers to dismiss the criticisms as mere imperial dictation. [Continue reading…]

Some regular readers here may have noticed that in headlines (the one above being an exception), I have stuck with ISIS, in spite of its official name change and the ongoing debate among outsiders over which is the most appropriate label. My choice has nothing to do with that debate. It’s based instead on the matter of usage.

Whichever happens to be the most commonly used label is “correct” by that virtue alone. That’s why even though ISIS is actually an ambiguous term, you will rarely find yourself in a conversation during which you’ll be asked to clarify whether you’re talking about the terrorist organization, ISIS, or the Egyptian goddess, Isis.

When it comes to determining who’s saying what, where, Google Trends is an indispensable tool.

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