It is essentially a rag-tag army of Sunni Arab extremists that hived off from the remants of al-Qaeda and took control of parts of Syria and Iraq under the cover of the Syrian civil war. It rules by terror and murder, and loves to videotape its atrocities and share them on the Internet. Lately, it has been losing battles and territory. Its attacks on Paris last week may have been the lashing out of a weakened criminal enterprise running short on options.
And yet they called themselves, grandiosely, the Islamic State, implying that they are 1) representative of all Muslims, and 2) a sovereign state. Many in the media, including this newspaper, also refer to them that way, since it is proper journalistic practice to call something by its stated name. Former prime minister Stephen Harper, not constrained by the same rules, always called it the "so-called" Islamic State.
Some world leaders – French President François Hollande and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, among others – have lately started calling IS something else: "Daesh." The term is used by IS's Arabic-speaking opponents – and it is heard a lot, since most in the region don't support IS. It is taken from the acronym for the Arabic name of the Islamic State: al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. When spoken, it sounds like an Arabic word meaning "one who sows discord." IS leaders have vowed, with the usual medieval flourish, to cut out the tongue of anyone uttering it.
So Daesh it is, at least for some of the leaders of countries that have been named by IS as targets. These leaders should keep at it. Propaganda is a key part of this battle; IS relies desperately on recruits to keep its killing machines in operation, and those recruits are lured in by the impression that the group is successful and powerful, and waging a war between Islam and The World. By refusing to refer to IS by its ridiculously overblown moniker, Western leaders strip it of some of its power and credibility.
Because the "Islamic State" is plainly neither of those things. It is a terror organization that, for the most part, has only been able to seize sparsely populated conflict zones ill-equipped to fight back against it. It is no more representative of Islam than the Ku Klux Klan is of Christianity. Its acolytes are frightened and hateful, hiding their insecurities behind a thin tissue of fake religious unity. Its lynchings and sadism and burnings-alive, all for public consumption, betray its true values.
An ultimately doomed religious death cult by any other name would smell just as bad.