Choose your words carefully

February 9, 2016

Ilya Klishin

Daesh or ISIS? In Russia, that’s not a choice for you to make. The Kremlin now believes that it’s not just laws it can abolish and introduce, but words as well.

ISIS (aka Daesh)

A few years ago, before the wars in Ukraine and Syria, a proverbial phrase was doing the rounds among middle-class Muscovites –“bike paths in concentration camps.” This referred to attempts on the part of the Moscow authorities to construct “Putinism with a human face,” with bars à la Manhattan, art spaces à la Kreuzberg, plus bike paths and mobile apps for direct contact with the city administration. That the use of the phrase “concentration camp” was clearly excessive back then has become apparent only now, with the introduction of what seems like hundreds of prohibitive laws and an ever-increasing moral degradation.

Furthermore, the dilemma that dominated that era – is it possible to support the regime if it’s doing something positive? – now appears rather naive. Now we are facing another ethical challenge that’s a sight more difficult. Some time ago, immediately after November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, and even before Russia started bombing the hell out of anything that moved in Syria, independent journalists in Russia (yours truly, among their number) suggested that henceforth, we should refer to ISIS using the term “Daesh,” which some of our Western colleagues had already started doing.


We’re all familiar with the arguments in favour: Daesh is the Arabic acronym of the same name ISIS, but also makes it possible to avoid associating the terrorists with Islam or statehood; moreover, it sounds like a word they find offensive, so much so that you risk having your tongue cut off if you utter it in eastern Syria or northern Iraq. It was French politicians who first starting using it – over a year ago now, in September 2014 – with the governments of Australia and the UK following suit.

But the BBC, for one, has publicly expressed its opposition to this word. The main argument against its use has been well articulated by FT editor Roula Khalaf ( people have already become accustomed to one particular word, and that word is ISIS, so why change it? Furthermore, would this obsessive attention to semantics not imply that the terrorists have reached such a level of evil that we’re afraid to call them by name, like Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter?

It could be that the debate won’t die down even after the complete destruction of ISIS/Daesh

In short, there’s no single solution to this issue. Some are for, some against, and that’s fine. It could be that the debate won’t die down even after the complete destruction of ISIS/Daesh, with historians taking over from politicians. But that’s a potential scenario in the West; here’s what’s happened in Russia in the meantime.

And in Russia …

Late last year, the popular conservative commentator (and senior Kremlin media official) Dmitry Kiselev “suggested” live on air that ISIS be referred to as “Daesh” – at the request, he said, of Islamic clergy. The word “suggested” is in quotation marks because, as it transpired, all state media in Russia were instructed the very next day to switch to the new term. All state agencies, newspapers, magazines, radio stations and websites (as well as their formally independent, but pro-Kremlin, counterparts) stood to attention, said “Siryessir!” – and promptly did as they were told. Some, it’s true, softened the transition by writing “ISIS (‘Daesh’ in Arabic),” but that’s unlikely to be the case for long.

The word has literally burst into the Russian language. According to Google Trends, if in November the ISIS/Daesh ratio was 100:1, it had plummeted to 3:1 by the very next month, with “Daesh” set to overtake “ISIS” early this year. Independent media outlets have mostly continued using the words “IS” or “ISIS,” but, according to the Levada Centre, their total audience comprises no more than 10 percent of the population. Which isn’t enough to keep the new word in check.

Besides, “keeping it in check” isn’t even strictly necessary. The idea of using ​​the word “Daesh” may be controversial, but there’s nothing “infernal” about it. If the switchover had been proposed by someone other than a Kremlin agitator, many so-called “liberal” media outlets may have made the same decision themselves. Now, though, this is unlikely. Despite having proposed switching to “Daesh” a few weeks prior to Kiselev’s “suggestion,” I’ve continued using “ISIS” in both professional and personal contexts. Such is my existential tragedy.

The problem isn’t even that a reasonable-enough idea was communicated and rigidly enforced via a military-style order (though there’s nothing good about that either); the problem is that the Kremlin believes it can control not only the news, but the Russian language itself. A belief which, it must be said, is not entirely unfounded.

“Myself and Others” on Soviet TV
“Myself and Others” on Soviet TV

Language control

The campaign in eastern Ukraine enjoyed such extensive support in Russia – and this, I think, hasn’t been fully communicated to people in the West – because the mythology of the Second World War, sacrosanct for Soviet and post-Soviet generations alike, had been reanimated through linguistic means. Ukrainian soldiers were branded “fascists” and “punitive expeditioners” – and not merely in journalistic columns but also by newscasters on the country’s main TV channels. Meanwhile, the militants who opposed them were loftily dubbed “militiamen” – a word that harks back not only to the Second World War-era guerrillas who fought against Hitler, but also to the war with Napoleon, and even to the Polish-Russian war of 400 years ago. Independent media correctly called them “separatists,” but everything suggests that they were vanquished in this linguistic battle.

The Kremlin now believes that it’s not just laws it can abolish and introduce, but words as well

The Kremlin has started getting a taste for this kind of thing, and now believes that it’s not just laws it can abolish and introduce, but words as well. The “Daesh” affair is just one example. But I have an even better idea for them. There was a popular documentary back in the USSR called Myself and Others, which explored the malleability of human perception under societal pressure. For example, at the request of the experiment organiser, a group of young Soviets referred to two little pyramids – one black and one white – as white. Upon which a majority not involved in the experiment promptly followed suit.

So here’s another great idea for Dmitry Kiselev’s next language control programme: why not suggest that the meanings of the words “black” and “white” be reversed?