A few days after the massacre of 30 British subjects on a Tunisian beach, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, used an interview on the BBC to berate the broadcaster and others for using the term "Islamic State." Mr. Cameron's suggestion was that the broadcaster should either refer to the "so-called Islamic State," use the acronym "ISIL," or adopt the Arabic term, "Daesh."
None of these suggestions is workable. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was never the "army" of the Irish Republic. It was instead a group of sectarian terrorists who claimed to fight for a community that was largely disgusted by their actions. Yet throughout a bombing and murder campaign lasting three decades, the BBC never referred to the IRA as the "so-called IRA." The group called itself the IRA, and so broadcasters and others referred to it as such. One might wish to call such groups all sorts of things, but calling by the name its leaders adopt is the easiest option of presenting the facts and not getting bogged down in nomenclature.
The Prime Minister's other suggestions -- that the Islamic State should either be called "ISIL" or "Daesh" -- are equally doomed to failure. For ISIL of course simply means "Islamic State of Iraq and Levant," while "Daesh" is effectively an Arabic acronym of the same. If the aim of all this wordplay is that the general public dissociate "Islamic State" from Islam, there seems little hope that this will much help to break the connection. After all, what if someone -- anyone -- asks what ISIL or Daesh stand for? What should people then say in response?
Of course, the problem that the Prime Minister got into on this occasion is the same problem he and all other world leaders get into whenever they adopt the "Islam is a religion of peace" line. What they are perfectly understandably trying to do is to disentangle more than a billion Muslims worldwide (and specifically the tens of millions of Muslims in Western democracies) from the violent jihadists in their religion. At the same time, they -- again understandably -- hope to give the message to their non-Muslim publics that they should not blame Muslims everywhere for the actions of this violent minority.
This is a laudable aim, but it is doomed to failure because members of the public no longer rely on either politicians or the mainstream media as their only sources of information or news. They can perfectly well get on the internet and find things out for themselves, and it is in this growing gulf between what politicians say and what the general public can perfectly easily find out for itself that a real long-term danger could emerge.
Why won't the public believe them when they explain that the "so-called Islamic State" has nothing to do with Islam? Pictured left, UK Prime Minister David Cameron. At right, US President Barack Obama.
All this is really a reminder that if we are in a war with ISIS, it is one in which we are performing very badly. Consider something said by Mr. Cameron's American counterpart a week after Cameron's statement. President Barack Obama gave a press conference at the Pentagon in which he, too, discussed the group that must not be named. On this occasion, the President said that the fight against ISIS was "not simply a military effort," and went on to say, "Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they are defeated by better ideas, a more attractive and more compelling vision."
Of course suggesting that there are many people who think a military solution alone can solve the ISIS problem is to create a straw man argument. But it is surely almost undeniable that the best thing on ISIS's side at the moment (and the cause of their current recruitment drive) is that they are seen to be not only on the offensive but on the way up -- gaining ground both figuratively and literally. When they take over whole cities in what used to be Syria or Iraq, radicalized young men and women from across the world, who might have been vacillating on whether or not to jump on board with the group, get galvanized in its direction. But if you flatten ISIS's military, the strong-horse appeal of ISIS would simply go away. If there is nothing to join, no one can join it.
President Obama is right to say that no ideology can be destroyed on the battlefield alone. The destruction of Nazi fascism in the 1940s was completed not only by its wholesale military defeat but by the world's awareness of the evil of the Nazi ideology and its wholesale moral and ethical failure. If the destruction of ISIS's ideology is to be complete, this too will have to be understood. But the U.S. and its allies ought to be wondering what is going wrong here. Although the numbers of citizens we are losing to ISIS constitute only tiny pockets of our own societies (if larger numbers across the Middle East and North Africa), we ought to consider how we are even losing people in ones and twos in a public relations war with this group.
While the Nazis tried to hide their worst crimes from the world, the followers of ISIS repeatedly record and distribute video footage of theirs. Between free and open democratic societies, and a society which beheads women for witchcraft, throws suspected gays off buildings, beheads other Muslims and Christians, burns people alive, and does us the favour of video-recording these atrocities and sending them round the globe for us, you would have thought that there would be no moral competition. But there is. And that is not because ISIS has "better ideas, a more attractive and more compelling vision," but because its appeal comes from a specific ideological-religious worldview that we cannot hope to defeat if we refuse to understand it.
That is why David Cameron's interjection was so important. The strategy Barack Obama and he seem to be hoping will work in persuading the general public that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam is the same tactic they are adopting in the hope of persuading young Muslims not to join ISIS. Their tactic is to try to deny something that Muslims and non-Muslims can easily see and find out for themselves: that ISIS has a lot to do with Islam -- the worst possible version, obviously, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but a version of Islam nevertheless.
ISIS can destroy its own credibility among advocates of human rights and liberal democracy. The question is how you destroy its credibility among people who want to be very Islamic, and think ISIS is their way of being so. Understand their claims and their appeal, and work out a way to undermine those, and ISIS will prove defeatable not only on the battlefield but in the field of ideas as well. But refuse to acknowledge what drives them, or from where they claim to get their legitimacy, and the problem will only have just started.