As regular readers have surely noticed by now, the English-speaking world can’t settle on an acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/al-Sham/the Levant. Ishaan Tharoor comments on the distinction:
[I]f we are to interpret “greater Syria” as the equivalent of “the Levant” — which it essentially is — then both designations are basically correct. Neither are as accurate as “DAIISH,” the Arabic shorthand for the group that no one in the English-language press seems to use. ISIS has become part of the English-language media’s common parlance and has something of a ring to it — it’s like the ancient Near Eastern goddess. So switching to ISIL is, if nothing else, a bit jarring.
Most of the time, we deploy acronyms that preserve the wording of non-English languages. Many English-language readers following South Asian politics will know the upstart Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party as the PTI, not the Movement for Justice (which is what Washington Post style dictates). The main ruling party in Algeria is almost always referred to as the FLN — for Front de Libération Nationale – and not by what would be its English equivalent, the NLF. And there are myriad more examples.
The Dish has settled on ISIS primarily because of how it rolls off the tongue, but also, as Hassan Hassan points out, “Bilad al-Sham” is the proper term for the Levant as a whole, whereas “al-Sham” is commonly used to mean Syria alone. In any case, a look at the region’s history leads Nick Danforth to conclude that the group’s dream of uniting “Iraq and al-Sham”, by any definition, is a little quixotic:
Both Iraq and al-Sham are place names with their own historical and political cachet, but it’s telling that ISIS’s leadership couldn’t come up with a single geographical term to describe its current area of operations. Al-Sham — which has sometimes been translated as Syria, though perhaps “Greater Syria” or “the Levant” gives a clearer sense of the geography — was most recently the name of an Ottoman province based in Damascus. Iraq, by contrast, was a geographical term that came into its own with the arrival of the British in the 1920s.
Operating on the sound logic of opportunism, ISIS is claiming to unite two regions that even the first opponents of the European mandate system were content to treat as separate. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, some of the earliest Arab nationalists came together in defense of a state covering the entire Levant. When Faisal, champion of the Arab revolt and later king of Iraq, proclaimed in 1920 a short-lived Arab Kingdom based in Damascus, he imagined its territory stretching from the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey to the Sinai Peninsula, but not east into Iraq.