Why is Islamic State (IS) referred to as "so-called"?



Often in news articles, I see that IS are referred to as "so-called" Islamic State. For example, in a BBC News article:

On Bastille Day last year, along the coast in Nice, more than 80 people were killed when a lorry was driven into celebrating crowds on the seafront in an attack claimed by so-called Islamic State.

Why is this prefix used?


Posted 2017-08-21T11:48:38.367

Reputation: 1 310


It's worth noting that often "so-called Islamic State" is encountered in media from the BBC (I've suggested an edit to attribute your quote, which does indeed come from the BBC, and it's always helpful to provide a link to any quote you use if you can when posting here). tim's answer has a link from The Guardian to explain why the BBC in particular use this phrasing.

– Aurora0001 – 2017-08-21T12:52:30.443

4It's also a subtle way of de-legitimizing their claim of State status – None – 2017-08-24T05:51:48.890



The name Islamic State is a claim to a global caliphate.

This claim is rejected by everybody else, from western leaders to Muslim leaders, to other Islamic extremists.

"so-called" is added to make it clear that this is not an objective or descriptive term, but a self-chosen label which does not reflect the true nature of a group. It happens with other groups and organizations as well, such as "so called alt-right" to make it clear that it is a white supremacist propaganda term, or "so called GDR" to make it clear that it is not actually a democratic republic.


Posted 2017-08-21T11:48:38.367

Reputation: 28 226

7I always thought "so called GDR" was labelled "so called" because the country was not recognised by the west. The Soviet Union was not referred to as "so called" despite not being an actual union of soviets (=democratic worker's councils). – gerrit – 2017-08-21T13:06:29.453

18@gerrit the GDR was recognised as an independent country by most everyone. That said I've never heard them referred to as "the so-called GDR" in any language. – jwenting – 2017-08-21T13:45:29.250


@jwenting Bild (the right-wing west-German tabloid) systematically referred to it as "Die sogenannte DDR". As for recognition, that may be a question for [History.SE]. Apparently it depends on the time in history, before September 1973 it wasn't recognised much; after, it was.

– gerrit – 2017-08-21T13:48:10.130

@gerrit ok, never read Bild or other FDR newspapers during the relevant era. Didn't hear the term used on German television though as far as memory serves, and we watched a lot of German television (seeing as that was many days all we could receive). – jwenting – 2017-08-21T13:53:00.633

@gerrit Good point, that is probably another - maybe actually more popular - reason. It seems that the Morgenpost gave the reason I gave (it's not democratic), but for others it was not seeing the DDR as a country. Either way, it's to make clear that the speaker does not agree with what the term represents.

– tim – 2017-08-21T14:01:40.273

It is worth noting that some other countries claim to be islamic states or partially islamic states, 'islamic' as in non secular muslim states. They don't have the global caliphate claim (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_state ) and are all opposed to the "caliphate", which explains why they don't want an appropriation of the term 'islamic state' by the caliphate. To these, you can add a long list of political parties wanting to establish more islamic states in their respective countries.

– user5751924 – 2017-08-21T15:00:55.807

News sources (see wikipedia article on ISIS) does state that their goal is the world wide caliphate. I think this is a corrupted part of the religion as others (Former president Mahmoud of Iran) has claimed. – Frank Cedeno – 2017-08-21T15:12:07.550

3@gerrit Yes, Bild used that term, but that was a propaganda term in its own right, only one faction actually used it. "So-called IS" seems a little bit more neutral than that, just making the point that basically no-one uses it - bar the so-called IS itself. – I'm with Monica – 2017-08-22T09:57:38.950


@AlexanderKosubek die sogeannte DDR is an extremely widespread term: I'd be surprised if any native speaker of German was unfamiliar with it. It wasn't only the "demokratisch" part which was "so-called" but also the "Republik" (It was not recognized as a legitimate state by most of the "West" (i.e. the US-/WW2 ally-aligned world)) and even the "deutsch" part: the idea of a single German state was still alive, i.e. the FRG and GDR couldn't both exist.

– errantlinguist – 2017-08-24T07:28:40.313

@jwenting - I have heard "so-called" used in a few instances when using the full name of totalitarian states with words like "Democratic Republic" in their names. I'm pretty sure its meant to be a comment on that part of the name, rather than whether they actually exist as a state or not. In "so-called Islamic State", it is the "State" part being doubted – T.E.D. – 2017-08-24T14:07:11.210

@errantlinguist My personal google bubble delivers exactly one result on page 1 that seems to be an actual use of the term by another channel than "Springer-Presse". That is by the ARD from 1965. All others are false positives, or, like Wikipedia, of the encyclopaedic persuasion. Could you, please, provide more actual examples or sources for a widespread use? I doubt there are many, but am more than willing to be proven wrong here. – I'm with Monica – 2017-08-24T16:13:25.503

@AlexanderKosubek are die Zeit, der Spiegel and video+audio recording of a well-known musician "false positives" to you? -- these are all on page one, at least for me.

– errantlinguist – 2017-08-24T17:13:07.430


Because they (Daesh) claim that their government is "Islamic State", but they consider most of Muslims as polytheist or infidel, and on the other hand, the majority of Muslims all over the world consider them to be fake Muslims.

We face with two facts:

On the one hand they (Daesh) are known in the media as "Islamic State", so in order to talk about them one will inevitably call them "Islamic State". On the other hand, they are not really an "Islamic State" (not Islamic nor a state), so one cannot call them "Islamic State".

As a result, one calls them the so-called "Islamic State".

Update: this part is explanation of "they are not really Islamic State". In fact this is my deleted comment that answers a deleted comment that call Daesh as "strict Islam":

No. They are not "strict Islam". It's cartoon of Islam, not strict Islam. They read only war verses of Quran, not verses like:

Say, "O People of the Scripture, come to a word that is equitable between us and you - that we will not worship except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah. But if they turn away, then say "Bear witness that we are Muslims.

Qur'an 3:64

...nor verses like...

There shall be no compulsion in acceptance of the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong.

Qur'an 2:256

They also don't consider many other verses that forbid killing people. The Qur'an as a book should be taken as a whole.

user 1

Posted 2017-08-21T11:48:38.367

Reputation: 5 928

Not just the "majority of Muslims" but more importantly, an enormous number of the top Muslim scholars and theologians have refuted the ideology of the so-called Islamic State. This is interesting, although the letter itself can be tough to understand.

– Dawood ibn Kareem – 2017-08-24T12:19:08.513


This is a specifically BBC policy, that some other outlets are following.

The general policy at the BBC is to use the name for a group that is generally understood, and that the group itself uses. When Daesh were first expanding in Syria and Iraq, there were two names in somewhat widespread use: ISIS and ISIL, both of which are abbreviations of possible translations of Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. The BBC chose ISIS. Political leaders in the UK and US chose ISIL.

After Daesh had captured Mosul and declared independence the BBC started using "Islamic State". The organisation was clearly in control of territory. This seemed to be the term in widespread use.

In a radio interview, following the attack on the Tunisian beach resort of Sousse, David Cameron said:

I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State because it’s not an Islamic state. What it is, is an appalling, barbarous regime … It’s a perversion of the religion of Islam and many Muslims listening to this programme will recoil every time they hear the words Islamic State … 'So-called' or Isil is better. Source

There were other complaints to the BBC, but it seems that the BBC did not want drop the term "Islamic State" completely. So it was decided (presumably by someone quite high-up, perhaps James Harding, head of BBC News) that presenters would prefix "so-called" before "Islamic State" for at least the first time each journalist uses the expression in a report.

Other news outlets have followed suit, the BBC has a lot of influence on British Media.

James K

Posted 2017-08-21T11:48:38.367

Reputation: 70 324


French middle east specialist 'Jean Pierre Filiu' explains that it is one of the goal of their propaganda towards western countries to appear as

  1. a state, and
  2. the state where any good muslim should go. (explained in French in this radio program :

He notes that this is the first time that a terror group name is translated into western languages (IS for english, Etat Islamique in french, ...), while other groups name like 'Al-Qaeda' (litterally 'The Basis'), were never translated. So, western media have followed the policy in 2 rounds:

  1. let's translate the name : we understand what it means, so let's go, and
  2. Probably this was a little bit stupid, falling directly in their propaganda, let's add the 'so-called' before... No media made the choice of going back to the arabic word which has no particuliar other meaning than designing a terror group.

Wilfried Maineult

Posted 2017-08-21T11:48:38.367

Reputation: 71

3could you add a link to the statement(s) of this French specialist? – Federico – 2017-08-22T11:32:32.523


Done, but as the source I remembered was a radio program in french... Probably you would find more in his books or on his blog on french newspaper LeMonde Some references are aviable to read in the English version of his wikipedia page, where he probably re-explains his views about the naming of Daesh

– Wilfried Maineult – 2017-08-22T14:26:01.257


The journalists are using term 'so-called state' to prevent controversies about the word 'state' which is used to describe a geopolitical unit. ISIS as a government is not acknowledged by any western state (they are not even called 'partisans' or 'rebels', instead they are referred as 'terrorists').

Using the term 'Islamic State' without 'so-called' could be interpreted, as if a specific journalist would consider they as a government that at least could be a candidate for acknowledgement. Saying 'so-called' makes it sure that you distance yourself from considering them a legitimate government, or sympathize with their claims.

In international politics, you need to be very careful about the names.

Danubian Sailor

Posted 2017-08-21T11:48:38.367

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