Murderers are not dissidents

It is wrong of the British Press to refer to nationalist-generally fanatically religious- killers as dissidents

David Black's funeral
Oscar Clarke
On 8 November 2012 12:00

Use the term “dissident republicans” and most people will assume that you’re talking about nationalist murderers from Ireland.

Virtually all of the news reports about the murder of the Northern Irish prison officer, David Black, have applied it, and this doesn’t appear to strike anyone as odd - the euphemism has become so common in writing and in speech as to infect the mental atmosphere. How did nationalist killers succeed in getting themselves called dissidents by the British press?

Like the word ‘radical’, ‘dissident’ was at one time a title, one which had to be earned by the expression of courage and bravery, not by the absolute negation of such virtues. But like the term ‘radical’, ‘dissident’ has been trashed by lazy journalism and clichéd methods of thinking. Who has not heard the term ‘radical’ applied to some seventh century-yearning Islamist preacher, or even as a prefix to the religion itself, as a way of differentiating the backward from the moderate?

Today, to be called a Chinese or Russian dissident is almost a term of endearment in the West. Not a term that should be afforded to murderers.

Could there be a less appropriate epithet by which to distinguish reactionaries from progressives than one once applied to Thomas Paine and William Hazlitt?

In the Soviet-era, when ‘dissident’ became a political noun, it was applied to people who thought in a certain way; who mentally transcended totalitarianism by thinking independently of the state. Vaclav Havel described the process as one of thinking and living “as if” you were a free person in a free society.

Dissidents, Havel said, had not “consciously decided” to be malcontents, as though it were a profession, but the “inner logic of their thinking, behavior, or work” was simply incompatible with the regime of fabrication and propaganda in which they resided.

In other words, dissidence is an attitude, which in Havel’s Czechoslovakia involved retaining a sense of irony in the face of a suicidal system that wouldn’t relinquish the idea of its own perfection. 

As it happens, WH Auden wrote a beautiful short poem about the Soviet response to the Prague Spring, which brilliantly caricatures the mundanity of life within a state that is not only captive, but is itself the creation of captive minds. It is called August 1968:


“The Ogre does what Ogres can

Deeds quite impossible for Man

But one prize is beyond his reach:

The Ogre cannot master speech.

About a subjugated plain,

Among the desperate and the slain,

The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,

While drivel gushes from his lips.”


In Iran today, it is easy to be a dissident for the same reason that it was easy to be one in Soviet-era Eastern Europe. The state demands the mental subjugation of the people that it won’t even allow to be called citizens, but who are instead considered its property.

One of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s most fundamental concepts was the Velayat-e faqih, meaning the ‘Guardianship of the Islamic jurists’, which subordinates everyone in the state to the status of children who are, in the rather abject tradition of monotheism, expected to remain obedient to their legal parents, the clerics. In such stifling conditions, it is not possible to stay loyal to the regime without sacrificing rather a great deal by way of thought.

Whether it is historically inevitable that there will one day be a unified Ireland or not is not a decision that should be in the hands of paramilitary organisations that murder their political opponents.

Whilst there are not many people who would be willing to challenge the thrust of that statement, the journalists who give succor to murderers by using ‘dissident’ as a euphemism are also expunging our language of an important and necessary word.

Furthermore, they are betraying the principles of their profession by - consciously or otherwise - offering a version of reality that is more soothing than the real one. And this method of evasiveness, for which the French have a phrase - la langue du bois (the wooden tongue), has a way of cementing itself in wider discourse.

How many times did al-Qaeda in Iraq manage to get their campaigns of terror described as the acts of ‘insurgents’? How many fellow Muslims did they get away with killing under the guise that their suicide murderers - for whom the French have another apt name: des fous d’Allah (Allah’s Madmen) - were doing it all to protect ‘Muslim land’ (another ghastly appropriation of Islamist rhetoric, known to them as the dar al-Islam) from occupying forces?

The answers to those questions give an approximation of the damage done when it becomes acceptable to call a spade by anything other than its real name. 

Oscar Clarke is a freelance writer

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