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Semantic squabbles: ‘Islamic State’ and Yassir Morsi

I’m inclined to back the BBC in its decision to call Islamic State ‘Islamic State’.  It’s a reasonable choice, though I don’t think it’s the only defensible one. (In conversation, I tend to use ISIS – less of a mouthful than ‘Islamic State’.) Many have pointed out that ISIL and ISIS also mean ‘Islamic State’ – Nick Cohen here for example. But the acronym does soften or conceal the word ‘Islamic’ which, whether you agree with him or not, is what Cameron seems to want to do.  This position was reinforced by Jeremy Hunt on Question Time last night. He insisted that ISIS was not an Islamic state, but Tunisia was. The phrase ‘Islamic state’, even if you drop the capital and leave ISIS out of the equation, doesn’t just mean ‘Muslim-majority country’, so that seemed a dubious point.

Daesh also means ‘Islamic State’ but, as Nick Cohen reminds readers here, has further connotations:

As for ‘Daesh’, it has the small propaganda advantage of reminding Arabic speakers of Daes (‘one who crushes something underfoot’) and Dahes (‘one who sows discord’). But beyond that childish word association it is no help at all, for ‘Daesh’ is just the Arabic abbreviation of al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham – or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

Although some have denounced the BBC for explaining that the pejorative Daesh is incompatible with their policy of neutrality, there is something to be said for a consistent policy of referring to groups by the names they call themselves. However the French government opted for the term ‘Daesh’ some time ago and so, just this week, did the Jewish Chronicle:

Such fuss over nomenclature may seem trivial. But in a battle of ideas, words and their meaning matter.

Although I agree that words matter, people disagree over the connotations of words, particularly as associations may shift over time.  This semantic confusion operates in other areas too, and it’s hard to make any choice which won’t offend someone.  Whereas many think that ‘yids’ is a categorically antisemitic expression, some Tottenham Hotspur fans insist that for them it’s a badge of pride. Some see ‘gypsy’ as a racist word whereas others happily identify as gypsies.  I’ve seen people express a strong preference for ‘transexual people’ over simply ‘transexuals’, whereas some find the substitution of ‘Jewish people’ for ‘Jews’ euphemistic. Generally the connotations of words describing minorities seem particularly subject to flux. Some words become more acceptable or positive – ‘queer’ for example.  Others fall into disfavour. ‘Coloured’ is a word which has very much dropped out of fashion.  When Benedict Cumberbatch used the word he came in for a good deal of criticism, even though he clearly didn’t mean to cause offence.

Cumberbatch, Oscar-nominated for his turn as codebreaker Alan Turing in second world war drama The Imitation Game, apologised earlier this week and said he was “devastated” to have caused offence after describing black performers as “coloured” during an interview in which, ironically, he was talking about the limited opportunities available to British actors of African or Caribbean origin.

In an article on the Cumberbatch controversy Lindy West explains why it’s important to get these things right.

Few things inspire the level of indignant condescension you get when you suggest that people be careful with their words. “Why,” someone inevitably snorts, “is it OK to say ‘people of colour’, but grievously offensive to utter the only slightly rearranged ‘coloured people’?

I was surprised no one else seemed to pick up on the unexpected use of the phrase ‘coloured people’ in this recent article on the Charleston shootings by Yassir Morsi.

In response to the reluctance of media to label Dylann Roof a “terrorist”, the debate on Twitter about white privilege reflects a history of discomfort of white subjects in seeing themselves as “raced”. A process that disrupts the normality of their humanness, yet a disruption that coloured people constantly live with.

Here Yemisi Adegoke explains why she finds the term coloured unacceptable.

The word “coloured” is offensive because it removes an element of humanity from people. Ribena is coloured, walls are coloured, people may be of colour but they are not coloured. It also harks back to the racist notion that being white is the default state and everyone else is “other,” an aberration from the norm.

I think it could be argued that the term ‘people of colour’ also implies that being white is the default state.  It’s the connotations of ‘coloured’, the history of its usage,  as much as any more rational explanation which makes it an unwelcome term.

That’s partly why I somewhat disagree with David Cameron’s over-anxious position.  For me the phrase ‘Islamic State’ is now very tied up with the horrors of ISIS –but this doesn’t affect my response to (words connected with) Islam or Muslims in other contexts.  Similarly, the phrase ‘National Socialism’ has very negative connotations, for socialists as much as anyone.

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