As I have discussed in a previous post, I am very interested in the radical rejection of the international state system woven into the very name of the militant group ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (AKA the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Today, however, the group just announced that it has removed the very territorial identifiers that, it seemed to me, produced this radical rejection: according to this BBC report, spokesmen for ISIS, besides declaring their organization a caliphate, have also changed their name to “the Islamic State.”
While carving a caliphate out of Syrian and Iraqi territory has always been the group’s intention, and while the very generality of the name indeed seems to pose a momentous challenge (for if it is the Islamic state, does that mean it aims to expand to include all territories where Sunni Muslims are in the majority?), I am quite surprised by the group’s dropping of the full name. What has seemed to me so striking about the group’s name depends upon simultaneous concreteness and ambiguity, which convey the group’s literally unsettling territorial ambitions: while its reference to Iraq is clear enough (the same Iraq that is threatening to finally break apart, with current calls for an independent Kurdistan beginning to be heard, as with Israel’s official support, described here), the term al-Sham translated as Syria is deeply ambiguous. As Patrick J. Lyons and Mona El-Naggarjune discuss here in their analysis of the group’s “Arabic name, الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, or al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham,” al-Sham is “the classical Arabic term for Damascus and its hinterlands,” which “came to denote the area between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, south of the Taurus Mountains and north of the Arabian desert,” and yet, like the “Western” term “Levant,” can mean, like the “Western” term Levant, “not just Syria but also Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and even a part of southeastern Turkey.”
Since it is quite clearly ISIS’s—or should I say IS’s?— desire to destroy the sovereign states of Syria and Iraq and to set up a new Islamist state that may well include portions of land included in the broad and unstable terms “al-Sham” or “Levant” (the group does sometimes go by ISIL), it seemed to me that the open-endedness of the name ISIS very effectively served the group’s clearly destabilizing intentions. The name ISIS (or ISIL) linked the production of a new state both with the very specific state of Iraq and a vaguely theorized notion of Syria whose ambiguity could support the idea of an aggressively expanding state that might strike at various locales in the Middle East, whether Turkey or Jordan or Lebanon or Israel. Perhaps IS is even more menacing in its open-endedness, suggesting an Islamic state poised to expand anywhere and everywhere—but the utter vagueness of this trajectory, and the stark singularity of its claim for not a caliphate, but the caliphate, seems to me to be so ambitious as to appear merely fanciful, unrealizable. But, then again, it is only a name—and very much is being realized and rewritten in the very unstable Middle East, these days.