Sam Leith

While ‘Daesh’ prepare to fight, MPs debate how to hurt their feelings

While 'Daesh' prepare to fight, MPs debate how to hurt their feelings
Text settings

Today in the Commons the Tory backbencher Rehman Chishti asked: “Will the Prime Minister join me in urging the BBC to review their bizarre policy; when they wrote to me to say that they can’t use the word Daesh because it would breach their impartiality rules? We are at war with terrorists, Prime Minister. We have to defeat their ideology, their appeal. We have to be united in that. Will he join me now in urging the BBC to review their bizarre policy?”

David Cameron positively purred: “I agree with my honourable friend. I’ve already corresponded with the BBC about their use of IS—Islamic State—which I think is even worse, frankly, than either saying ‘so-called IS’, or indeed ‘Isil’. But Daesh is clearly an improvement and I think it is important we all try and use this language.”

Important? Well, kinda. But – as Parliament votes on whether or not to wage actual war (or, less bombastically, on whether or not to extend the mandate of existing bombing raids onto the other side of an almost literal line in the sand marking the boundary between a failed state and one whose government’s legitimacy we don’t recognise), there’s important and there's important. And the difference between the roman acronym for "Islamic State" and the Arabic acronym for, um, "Islamic State" could surely be regarded as "not very important". (Why Mr Cameron thinks the roman acronym for Islamic State is "even worse" than the roman acronym for "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant" is for him to explain.)

“They pull a knife, you pull a gun, He shends one of yoursh to the hospital, you shend one of hish to the morgue." Thus Sean Connery in The Untouchables, telling how you fight a war “Chicago-style”. How would you adapt that, do we think, for our collective response to the Paris attacks? “They pull a gun, you pull a hashtag. They send 132 of yours to the morgue, you start calling them a slightly rude name.”

As they say on the internet: SRSLY?

Imagine you’re in Raqqa, having at last made Hijrah from the family semi in Dudley. You’re chillaxing, maybe having a bit of a kickabout with the head of an apostate, when your friend calls you over to his laptop.

“Look, brother. The kufirs have reacted to the blessed martyrdom operations in the hated capital of prostitution and garlic!”

“What are they doing? Launching a ground invasion? Closing their borders?”

“No – they’re – haha – they’re… you’ll not believe this, bruv. They’re still arguing over what to call us.”

“You mean ISIL or IS, or Isis? I get a bit confused between those myself, if I’m honest.”

“No. They’re really pissed off this time. They’ve started calling us Daesh, because they read somewhere that it offends us. Oh, except the BBC, which says we shouldn’t be called terrorists because bias, and they’re all having an argument about that, too. ”

And there, we can leave our jihadists, as they also say on the internet, ROFLING.

It’s perhaps symptomatic of a culture where name-calling is policed with a vigour once reserved for incitement to violence, that the widespread reaction to an act of real violence is to think of how we might retaliate by hurting someone’s feelings. It’s as the giving and taking of offence – as recently seen on a university campus near you – has acquired the aura of a credible weapon of war. Could we no-platform IS into submission?

Real energy is being spent on this. We fretted that we shouldn’t call it Islamic State because -- zing! -- it isn’t Islamic and it isn’t a state. Stern proclamations were issued about the use of “so-called”, and I don’t doubt serious thought was given to whether the miming of rabbit-ears scare quotes would compromise the dignity of the Ten O’Clock news. It’s as if we seriously worried the average viewer might be tricked into sympathising for the head-hacking sodcopters because of the absence of the proper disclaimers.

Now we’re favouring Daesh – the acronym for ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī 'l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām; worth memorising for the pub quiz – which is actually the name they call themselves, but whose acronymic form sounds like a rude word and doesn’t emphasise the Islamic element. Hilary Benn, meanwhile, has started calling them “ISIL/Daesh”, which, at least to my ear, immediately conjures Captain Von Trapp crooning “Edelweiss” to Julie Andrews.

Real energy has been spent, too, on worrying about whether Francoise Hollande’s declaration that “France is at war” is a political mistake, because it by implication dignifies IS with statehood: nations only go to war with other nations, right? This sixth-form debating point has had actual airtime. I very much doubt that – keen though they are on national self-determination – the jihadis spend all that much time wondering whether to describe themselves as militants or terrorists or fighters while they’re strapping on their bomb-belts.

Even lightweight but unobjectionable acts of clicktivism on social media – 132 people dead in Paris; I’ll put the tricolore on my Facebook avatar by way of expressing solidarity and respect – have prompted outbursts of public soul-searching. Isn’t it, like, racist and Eurocentric to put a French flag on when you didn’t change your avatar for Beirut? And isn’t Facebook, like, this totally white corporate thing that’s trying to monetise your grief?

What all these phenomena have in common is that they make the Western navel the centre of the action. They turn a murderous attack on civilians in one of the great cities of the world into a conversation among ourselves about the technicalities of nomenclature and the moral irreproachability of our own reactions. Words matter; but they don’t matter all that much.

And, yes: I’m aware that, in writing about the handwringing about the verbal shading of how we respond to the actual real-life murders committed by actual real-life murdering bastards, I risk adding an extra stroke of the chin.

So let’s return to our jihadis. From their end of the telescope I’d suggest that all this looks, at a personal level, like narcissism. It looks at a political level like tokenism. And it looks at a sociocultural level like what, in the days of the last great Evil Empire, they used to call decadence.

A previous version of this piece appeared in last week's Spectator.

Written bySam Leith

Sam Leith is an English author, journalist and literary editor of The Spectator.

Topics in this articlePoliticsbbcsyria