Attempting to understand the phenomenon of violence

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
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There are several discussions about climate threats and the scarcity of food and dozens of prophecies about the dry land and the decrease of water. However the worst threat is violence with all its forms, the terrorist, the criminal and the political.

A society’s luxury is first measured by its security and then all other standards follow. Although the world has witnessed major violence in East Asia, mass massacres in Africa, civil wars in the Middle East and massacres in Europe – of which most of them were racial or political – the bloody terrorism of radical movements since the late 20th century is the worst considering how insidious it is and how it operates and renews its plans.

Terrorism is not criminal violence that can be limited and curbed but it is ideological violence that does not have a specific worldly and materialistic aim. Killing becomes a target and suicide becomes a mean even if slogans of an Islamic state are raised or if imagined models of a caliphate or a pious society that rules by sharia are established.

The issue is not about ordinary analysis of violence or social, psychological and political justifications but it’s about the relation between violence and the idea of violence and between the terrorist and what he finds sacred based on the origin of sacrifice.

This is what distinguished the work of René Girard in his book Violence and the Sacred which is an anthropological research that explores the origins of violence and sacrifice by looking into relations between the sacrifice, the sacred and violence.

The issue is not about ordinary analysis of violence or social, psychological and political justifications but it’s about the relation between violence and the idea of violence

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

‘Sacred violence’

Tunisian researcher Manoubi Ghabbech has an important work about “sacred violence” in which he considered “the sacrifice, the bloody offering, as the basic model of sacred violence.” He wrote: “The old anthropological phenomenon that’s linked to simple collective awareness (old pagans, bioethics and totemism) later transformed into a sociopolitical phenomenon in complicated and developed societies which did not lose the phenomenon of sanctification.”

He cited French Philosopher Roger Caillois’ book Man and the Sacred and quoted the statement which stipulates that “sacred violence is the violence which is legitimized based on a religious, legendary or ideological references. Sacred violence does not only take its forms from founding texts but it’s also embodied in the most brutal scenes in wars and during torture that’s practiced against the followers of another religion or doctrine or sect.”

The thesis, which thoroughly discusses the relations between violence, society and terrorism, is by Philosophy instructor Paul Dumouchel. The book’s title is “The Barren Sacrifice an Essay on Political Violence” and he dedicated it to Girard. The influence of his teacher was seen in the book in which he analyzed the meaning of violence for cannibals. He also touches on Alain Corbin’s book The Village of the Cannibals in which he analyzes an incident of collective violence that happened in Dordogne during the 1870 war.

He then addressed an important concept developed by Hannah Arendt and which is the “banality of evil” which he said “expresses surprise before what we can call (not sanctifying the executioner) as the gravity and ugliness of the crime do not grant the perpetrator any greatness and do not surround him with a sacred aura or grant him an unordinary evil feature that suits his actions in the face of the denial which his approaches reveal.

Banality of evil

The banality of evil brings the executioner closer to the level of the unknown victims who have no faces as they are just countless unknown people whom nothing indicated the horrible fate they will meet.”

Dumouchel shifted major concepts about violence since the days of Arendt and up until Girard’s but he magnificently and uniquely defined violence as: “Violence can quickly integrate with disputes and competitions that move individuals. This is why it repels as much as it attracts and worries as much as it charms. However, it approaches active individuals who have no commitment to get involved in it.”

All these concepts are theories that attempt to understand the roots of violence through anthropological analysis of cultures. Violence is part of humanity and it’s a basic in the latter’s major transformations and historical turns. Therefore, terrorism, as the most prominent manifestation of the phenomenon of violence, puts the future of relations between states, cultures and people at stake.

Even affairs related to communication, tourism and education will confront unprecedented challenges. Travelling in the near future may be difficult. This enhances the hypothesis of conflicts instead of communications and agreements. The phase after terrorism will not be like the time before it.

States may succeed in targeting and eliminating terrorist entities but eradicating violent tendencies requires civilized formulas and ideological transformations that most countries, except certain western ones, are incapable of. It is countries’ duties to monopolize violence and prevent individuals from evaluating how good violence is. Only the state has the right to describe it.

All violent tendencies emerge due to a defect in the social contract and due to not organizing differences among people in favor of the less fortunate in society as John Rawls puts it. All this may postpone the eruption of major conflicts and limit the flames of terrorism’s raging fire.

This article is also available in Arabic.
Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat,, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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