Mutual “understanding of violence” in future Syria? Commenting Marcel M.Baumann (by Estella Carpi, March 2013)








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Today I would like to share these words written by Marcel M. Baumann, with regard to the post-conflict transformation of the idea of violence, after being used in war time. The following piece made me think about how, in this respect, the Syrian scenario will look like after the current crisis, and if a mutual understanding of how violence is being used – by the regime, the Free Syrian Army and the several armed parts – will ever be necessary and feasible to reconcile the post-war reality.

According to the scholar, rather than defining violence as an aprioristic senseless and irrational act, we should consider it as a historical and cultural form of meaningful action, whenever this turns useful to a peace-building process.
In other words, even without liberating the common concept of violence from its natural connotations of harmfulness and sterility – in terms of crisis solution – we can still accept violence in a new meaningful form within a post-conflict society  experiencing a reconciliation process. 

With specific regard to Syria, considering the chronically sceptical media analyses and the alleged anti-imperialistic fundamentalism that several Leftists have proudly sustained, the regime’s violence, on a whole, has been more “justified” than that of its opposer, or, at least, it has been taken for granted.

In the capacity of official sovereignty and legal government – although it was not legal since the Baath Party took the power in Syria back in the ’60s – the regime’s violence has been viewed as a “natural” way of dealing with internal chaos within the state boundaries, even when such a state repression is strongly condemned by the international community. The armament of the revolutionaries – even of the only Free Syrian Army, main “opposition representative” – has been far less accepted by the international public. It ended up being “normal” that the State reacts violently to “imported chaos”, but abnormal that people respond to a cruel repression by taking up weapons and resorting to those who help them out (although for their own interests).

The conviction of western prigs that a resistance to the regime’s ruthless repression could have been carried out by using Gandhian means, has brought to the fore the fundamentalism of some pacifists and anti-imperialists (with the abused purpose of opposing the US power and their allied Arab Gulf States). As a result, nowadays, the internationally unaccepted role of violence among many revolution’s supporters has already impinged on the political legitimisation of the opposition – however deficient it may seem – by being considered immoral before being militarily declared winner or loser.

Despite our normative refusal of violence, Baumann, to my mind, provides insightful points that made me wonder why morality has been equally denied to both parts instead. One of the two parts is epitomised by the State, which is supposed to be the highest defender of its citizens’ security and safety, even in a de facto dictatorship. And the Syrian State is instead the one that is using the major cruel force, in the name of its paradoxical “anti-Western War on Terror”, although undertaken and waved with the same strategies as its counterparts. In light of my personal considerations, a scenario in which the two opposed “violence-scapes” will moralise one another basically relies on the way history will be written. After all, as Hannah Arendt reminded us, if there is no history of victims there are no victims of history.

(Estella Carpi)


“The prerequisite for the divided communities being part of the same post-conflict society is to achieve a common, not a divided understanding of the violent past in order to move forward: understanding the other’s “understanding” of violence means to reach a mutual understanding that both sides fought a campaign which from their own perspective was just and legitimate.

Therefore, the morality of the other’s violence has to be recognised.

The important factor is to consider the meaning and significance of the violent act instead of claiming a priori illegality, senselessness or irrationality. Violence without an audience, in other words, will still leave people dead, but is socially meaningless.

Violent acts are efficient because of their staging of power and legitimacy, probably even more so than due to their actual physical results.

However, these discursive legitimization strategies cannot be left unchallenged, because “recognition” and “understanding” are not a one-way street. The challenge to the legitimization discourse is that during war there will always be civilian fatalities and combatants who decide to participate
in a war, for example choosing violence or armed conflict, thereby accepting the loss of innocent civilian lives.

Thus, when demanding that victims and surviving families understand the violent acts of armed groups as having been carried out for politically motivated reasons, the armed groups must in return also recognize how difficult it is for victims and surviving families to comprehend the rationalization
of violence that distinguishes between “legitimate targets” and “civilians”.

(From Marcel M. Baumann, “Understanding the Other’s “Understanding” of Violence: Legitimacy, Recognition, and the Challenge of Dealing with the Past in Divided Societies”, in International Journal of Conflict and Violence, Vol.3 (1) 2009, pp.107-123).

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