STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And we talk next about how language shapes our perceptions. This is the story of a name, the name of an extremist group. It calls itself the Islamic State. President Obama prefers ISIL. Others say ISIS. Jonah Blank says the name of that group in Iraq and Syria matters a lot. He's a former advisor to Democratic leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is now at the RAND Corporation.
What is the importance of the term that this group has put on itself, Islamic State?
JONAH BLANK: Well, they're claiming to represent all Muslims everywhere. They have declared the establishment of a new caliphate. So if they are to actually own this term, that'll be a huge propaganda victory for them.
INSKEEP: OK, so how successful, as far as you can tell, has this group been in getting people to call it the Islamic State?
BLANK: Well, in the Western press, it seems as if they are gaining a lot of ground. More people are calling them IS today than were calling them IS two months ago. I think that for a lot of journalists, it's just easier. It takes up less space in a headline. It's what the group actually calls itself, so it has that benefit. And also, it avoids the complicated and confusing terminology of what does ISIS or ISIL stand for.
INSKEEP: OK, that gets to the next point. ISIS, ISIL - what's the difference?
BLANK: Well, the difference is ISIL stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. And ISIS stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria. But the problem is that the S doesn't refer to the modern state of Syria, it refers to Syria, Lebanon, parts of Turkey, parts of what are now Jordan. The S in the Arabic is al-Sham. So that's partly why I think the president prefers ISIL. It doesn't have the lengthy explanation that I've just gone into.
INSKEEP: Let's talk now about the greater Middle East, the region in which this is taking place. Based on what you know, how widely accepted is the phrase Islamic State there?
BLANK: My sense is that it's not very widely accepted at all because to Muslims everywhere, the Islamic State has a real meaning. It means the caliphate, a universal, legitimate Islamic rule. And very few Muslims anywhere see this group as legitimate.
INSKEEP: What about the effect of saying Islamic State on potential terrorist recruits, that narrow subset of people that might be willing go over and fight for this group calling itself the Islamic state?
BLANK: That's a very potent area of propaganda because ISIS has attracted potentially thousands of foreign fighters, and none of these foreign fighters see themselves as terrorists. They see themselves as knights, as mujahedin. They see themselves as freedom fighters. So they're very interested in fighting for the Islamic State, and they do not regard what they're doing as, in any way, an act of terrorism.
INSKEEP: How is the United States doing at pushing its own narrative in this situation?
BLANK: Not as well as the U.S. really could and should be doing. Part of the problem is that there are several different narratives for different audiences. For the American audience, for the American people, the narrative has got to be, your government will protect you. Your government will protect American interests. However, the big narrative for ISIS is, who is going to defeat them? Is this the battle that the United States will be waging? Is this a battle for the world community to be waging? Or is this a battle that has really got to be waged by Muslims and particularly by Sunni Muslims? That's a totally different narrative, and it's one that the U.S. can facilitate but the U.S. cannot really control.
INSKEEP: Jonah Blank is a former senior staffer at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He advised Joe Biden and John Kerry when they were there. He's now at the RAND Corporation. Thanks very much.
BLANK: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.