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The Islamic State by Any Other Name

ISIS does not want to be called Daesh. The group considers the acronym insulting and dismissive. An increasing number of its opponents do not want it to be called the “Islamic State.” They fear that this shorthand reifies the terrorist group’s claims to be a legitimate government.

The debate reminds us that names have power.

Avid readers of fairy tales have always known this. Calling Rumpelstiltskin by his real name banishes him and foils his baby-stealing plans. Speaking your name to a witch or wizard can give them power over you. Patrick Rothfuss’s wildly popular Kingkiller Chronicles contains a magic system where learning the name of an element — like the wind — gives a person magical control over it. And everyone knows what happens when you say Beetlejuice’s name three times.

It is too late to treat Daesh as Yoko Ono requested that John Lennon’s assassin be treated — by denying it the dignity of a name we deign to speak aloud. 

Converts to new religions often take new names to honor the transformation. We mark significant passages in our lives — birth, marriage, death — with new names. Miss Smith becomes Mrs. Jones. Junior becomes Senior when Senior dies. There’s even an old Jewish tradition that says that, in times of serious illness, one should take a new name in order to fool the Angel of Death.

Whether we believe in magic or religion or not, we feel the power of names throughout our lives. Who didn’t go through a childhood phase of wanting a different name? I was wildly jealous of Catholic friends who got to choose confirmation names. A college friend declared that her first day in college was “time to get…

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