I Know You Are But What Am I?

By Cara Burnidge

Cara Burnidge, Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Northern Iowa, teaches Religions of the World and researches religion in U.S. foreign relations. She also tweets and, along with her students, curates a Flipboard magazine dedicated to religion in international affairs.

Readers beware: this blog post is not about religion. It is a reflection on some of the issues involved in defining an object of study.*

This past week, Rachel Maddow kicked off her show with an international topic dominating the news. Before she talked about bombings, though, she turned her attention to borders.

Border DefinitionMaddow wanted to know: why are there two different names for the group that the United States is bombing in Iraq? The White House and the U.S. Department of Defense say the United States is targeting “ISIL.” “Everyone else,” she says, calls the group “ISIS.” In what followed, Maddow gave a brief history to the two names used. Some use “ISIS” because it stands for the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” Others use “ISIS” as an acronym for the “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.” The former implies that the group seeks to establish its authority in Iraq and Syria. The latter suggests the group seeks to establish itself in Iraq and “greater” Syria, or the territory belonging to Syria plus portions of surrounding areas. As Maddow and others have noted, the U.S. government does not use “ISIS” at all. Instead, press briefings use “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” or “ISIL.” By preferring “Levant” the White House and State Department claim that this group’s desired reach expands beyond Syria and Iraq to include larger portions of Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestinian territories. Whatever term is used, Maddow’s segment indicates that everyone seems to be on the same page: the name changes, the boundaries shift, but—somehow—the object of study stays the same.

Maddow presents her concern about ISIS vs. ISIL as an issue of translation when she asks “what’s in a name?” The assumption is that it doesn’t matter what term is ultimately used because everyone knows who the group really is. But this is not a matter of Maddow—or anyone else—choosing the most accurate translation of a word or idea in a language different than her own. After all, no English-language news agency is using the term that the group in question wants to use: “Islamic State.” According to English-language videos, this group considers all borders to be artificial and illegitimate, so they prefer to drop any association with present-day territories and be known only as “IS.” In many ways, Maddow is right when she says, “frankly, I think no one cares what they want to be called.” “No one cares” because the issue of naming has less to do with the object of study being named and more to do with the person or group doing the naming.

Take for example, the newest name on the table: QSIS. Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah, a part of the Egyptian Ministry of Justice, declared the proper name for this group is “al-Qaeda Separatists in Syria and Iraq.” Because they consider the group “far from the correct understanding of Islam,” Dar al-lfta is asking others to “call it QS not IS.” The more the group is associated with al-Qaeda, the reasoning is, the less it will be associated with Islam. The less it is associated with Islam, the more distance there is between Muslims in Egypt and the group in question. Or, as another reporter put it “terrorist organizations don’t get to decide what they are called.” Corporations, however, do.

Whether or not one uses “ISIL” to build a broader coalition, or thinks it’s stupid to say “ISIL,” or assumes Syria is “real” but al-Sham is “imagined,” what Studying Religion reminds us is that the names we use tell us little about “them” and more about “us.” Defining an object of study is therefore not a neutral act. Setting boundaries is a social act that indicates the interests of the people doing the defining and not the object being defined.

*Careful readers will find more than one parallel in
Chapter 1 of Studying Religion.

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