The Islamic extremists known as ISIS are a great deal more dangerous than most of us realize. The reason for this is hidden in plain sight in the name itself: ISIS. In English, this stands for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but that’s not what it stands for in Arabic: ad-Dawlat al-Islamiyya fī’l-‘Iraq wa’sh-Sham: The Islamic State in Iraq and Ash-Sham.
The crucial difference is the word Sham, a word that resonates in the Arabic-speaker’s mind on multiple levels. To see why, let’s step into a time machine. All we have to do is start to read any passage of written Arabic, and we find ourselves traveling down that passage, all the way back to a certain day in the Arabian desert circa 630 A.D. It doesn’t matter whether what we are reading is from a novel or from today’s headlines, it is — and always will be — written in exactly the self-same Arabic, letter for letter and dot for dot, that was used almost 1,400 years ago.