Though the President is still referring to “a group known as ISIL,” John Allen, the retired general selected to coordinate the international fight against the group, uses the acronym “IS.” As a military man, Allen will tend reflexively to treat the enemy with respect, even with a respect that the enemy may not deserve according to many civilians. The New York Times has also adopted “IS,” and many mainstream journalists may simply fall in line, no doubt with self-conscious intention of neutrality. “You’re not doing them a favor by calling them by their official name,” said journalist-tweep Evan Helmuth (as @abuliberali). “You’re just being accurate.” Zack Beauchamp and Max Fisher, arguing on behalf of Vox, disagree. Beauchamp quotes his colleague approvingly as follows: “[ISIS] is easiest to understand, and also most accurately describe[s] the group’s de facto status… focused exclusively in holding territory in [Iraq and Syria].”
We can set aside the question of whose definition of accuracy is more accurate, as well as the question of whether calling a group by the name it prefers does not inevitably qualify as legitimation to some extent, but perhaps we should recognize that referring to the group simply as “IS” quietly constitutes the enemy as “the Islamic State,” and reinforces perception of the struggle as anti-Islamic for some, for others as significantly a different thing: anti-Islamist. Put differently, for those seeking an ideologically coherent principle or larger aim of the struggle, amidst difficulties describing positive values uniting, say, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United State of America, the geographical non-specificity of “IS” is helpful: It represents the concept and aspiration that the coalition opposes, the negation that it seeks to negate.
In this last connection the argument by veteran diplomat Dennis Ross is sensible, however much it may have appalled democracy promoters and other anti-authoritarians – even those like Shadi Hamid, who in other contexts has readily acknowledged the essential and self-definitional illiberalism of Islamists. Ross refers to a “fundamental division between Islamists and non-Islamists” as central to the current conflict across the Middle East and North Africa (and possibly beyond), and the creation of an anti-IS coalition tends to re-define or perhaps to confirm “Islamism” as a particular finally unacceptable answer to the meeting of Islam and the Western and international state concept. In short, though “Islamic state” is also contained within “ISIS” and “ISIL,” “IS” puts the matter more broadly, simply, and generally, promoting the Islamic State to a position of purest realization thusfar of Islamism as political concept, rather than as one particular expression among others.
As for those others, as Hassan Hassan has recently detailed, the conduct of moderate Islamists – mainly Muslim Brotherhood offshoots – has tended to implicate rather than exonerate them in relation to IS/ISIS and other radical or extremist groups. Without rehearsing familiar, inevitably prejudicial attempts to characterize Islam or, a different matter, Muslims, or a different matter again, the conduct of Muslims at any place or time, we can still observe that the fight against “the Islamic State” would not be against Islam, but against the “ism.” ((It might even be anismist.)) It would tend to deny the central distinguishing tenet of Islamism heretofore, its insistence that Islamic doctrine in some singularly and demonstrably correct, rigorously implementable interpretation can and must provide the sole adequate, proper, and unitary basis for constitution of any state.
Though Islamists do not all share the same interpretation, but instead stand on diverse, mutually exclusive, often highly idiosyncratic multiple Islamisms, they do share in common the belief in the necessity of the never-achieved absolutely opposite condition, of actualized unanimity. By contrast, participants in an anti-IS coalition will be choosing pluralism, if at this stage a pragmatic pluralism among nation-states rather than realized pluralism within all states.
At this conceptual extreme, the openness to alliances with infidels and heretics already realizes an essential “anti-Islamism” even and perhaps especially from Saudi Arabia, as well as from other participants. Such typical contradictions of the struggle – as also in the persistent question of nominal or effective alliances with Hafez al-Assad’s forces, with al-Sisi’s Egypt, with the Islamic Republic of Iran, with an Iraq dependent for its defense on Shia-Islamist militias, with Putin’s Russia, even with the Kurds – are defined along this same axis, since each unwanted, rejected, or needed but troublesome ally, even finally the coalition’s would-be leader, represents a destabilizing national project of a different type.
The American interest, however inconsistently it may have been pursued in the past, may simplify and resolve as an overriding interest in the world state of nation-states as lawfully constituted and recognized, or in the existing international order or “civilization itself” (as a Senator on my TV just put it), prior to liberal and democratic universalisms but as their necessary condition, something that Muslims among others can consider and possibly embrace, but that Islamism as we have known it or as it historically has defined itself inherently cannot.