September 10, 2014 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Terrorism

Murderers more appropriate than Islamic State

The murderers of journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley call themselves the Islamic State. And commentators reliably repeat that name. That's wrong -- and dangerous.

The Islamist terrorists of the Middle East don't want to make a state. They want to break states. In 1996, Osama bin Laden condemned the United States for dividing the Muslim community "into small and little countries." His answer was to replace the states of the Middle East with a religious empire.

Bin Laden is dead, but his anti-state ideology lives on. We won't understand that ideology if we parrot the terrorists' terms. In the United States, we do live in a state. To paraphrase André the Giant's line from "The Princess Bride," that word doesn't mean what the murderers think it means.

States are the building blocks of the international system. They have armed forces that follow a chain of command and respect for the laws of war. They have a bureaucracy -- preferably, a limited one -- that follows the rule of law. They deal with other states through diplomacy, and respect them as legal equals.

The Islamists accept none of this. As their hostage-takings and suicide attacks on civilians show, they reject the laws of war. While an Islamist regime like Iran's may have a bureaucracy, it serves its religious masters, not the law. And since the Islamists want to define the lines on the map by religion, they have no interest in the traditions of secular diplomacy.

The Islamists call what they want a state, but they don't want any of the things that define a state. What they want is a religious empire -- the caliphate, which they declared on June 29. Yet politicians and pundits on every side of the political spectrum have carelessly repeated the misleading label that the terrorists have applied to themselves.

From President Barack Obama down, the administration refers to the murderers as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). So do many others. It's convenient. I've done it myself, and there's no malice in it. But it's still wrong.

Why does this matter? It matters because you shouldn't let your enemy define himself. We didn't call the Nazis the Master Race. After Pearl Harbor, we didn't call Japan the leader of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. We didn't call East Germany a people's democracy. We called them Commies.

It matters because names aren't neutral. They're propaganda. By repeating them, we amplify their power. North Korea calls itself the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the DPRK. That is propaganda, because North Korea is a totalitarian dictatorship.

Hence, virtually no one in the civilized world calls it the DPRK, because using that name is playing North Korea's game. The very name the Islamist murderers use is a recruitment tool, an assertion of religious authority, and a claim to territorial control. It is a propaganda claim that we must refute.

And it matters because states matter. I pointed out in July that state sovereignty was under attack in both Israel and Ukraine. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has forgotten that sovereignty requires respect for a few basic rules of the international road.

The Islamist terrorists are waging an even more explicit assault on these rules. They hate the very idea of the state. As the world's leading state, we have too much at stake to allow them to succeed. Describing them accurately is part of resisting their assault.

So stop unthinkingly calling them ISIS. Or ISIL. Call them thugs. Call them murderers. Call them barbarians. Call them assassins. But don't call them an Islamic State.

 - Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in Anglo-American Relations, based at The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation in Washington.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Originally appeared in the Long Island Newsday