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History of Violence in Middle East


In the Middle East, violence has become perhaps the most significant element of the socio-political life of the region in these years, at least in the opinion of an outside observer. The civil war in Syria claimed from two hundred thousand to half a million human lives. Two civil wars in Libya took away the lives of up to seventy thousand individuals. The civil war in Yemen took away several tens of thousands, and the humanitarian catastrophe in this country counts several millions of lives.

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In Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey, considered quite peaceful countries in the region, terrorism has become an element of everyday life. Furthermore, although the number of casualties of terrorism is much smaller than the number of people that die during armed conflicts, the constant threat exists in the minds of civilians. However, if the number of casualties of armed conflicts between the government and civilians is much larger, then there is a possibility that some form of structural violence exists in the region. This paper will explore the opinions of historians about the issue of violence and discuss biopower as the source of structural violence.

Devji, Mazower, and Fassin on Violence

Violence can be seen as one of the oldest and most primitive ways to resolve social conflicts (Fassin 281). The whole history of humanity is a series of violent actions aimed at the destruction and enslavement of some individuals and social groups by others (Fassin 281).

The history of the development of social conflicts and the forms of violence used in them can be divided into three main stages. The first is related to the use of direct physical force – primeval man sought to destroy another individual or group if they were the cause of frustration (Englander 15). During the period of slavery, a person came to understand that it is more profitable not to kill the enemy, but to force him or her to work. The second stage is political, and its essence lies in the dominance of some social groups over others (Englander 16). The stage, which is economical, is based on a broad, mutually beneficial social exchange.

In parallel with these three methods of resolving social conflicts (physical, political, economic), the ideological and moral principles of the interaction of people were formed on the basis of ethnic, value, and legal norms (Englander 22). However, the development of world civilization has not saved humanity from mass violence and wars. The 20th century broke all conceivable and unimaginable records in the number of victims of violence (Devji 801).

Only in two world wars, more than 70 million people died, and in various kinds of local conflicts – about 30 million more (Mazower 1159). Researchers of the problem note that there is an escalation of violence in most countries of the world. However, it is challenging to research the issue because of its complexity.

In a narrow sense, violence is associated with causing physical and moral injuries to a person. In a broad sense, violence is understood to mean any damage (physical, moral, psychological, ideological, and others) caused to a person or any form of coercion against other individuals and social groups. Because of the term’s relative vagueness, as noted by Devji, it is challenging for historians and legal professionals to compare and contrast various events of cruelty in human history (801).

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Devji also claims that the conventional definition of violence presumes the existence of a responsible party, and by using only this definition, historians lacked productivity when dealing with the issue (801). He argues that historians and legal workers need a comprehensive framework for comparing and contrasting events of violence in the history of humanity.

The typology of violence is quite extensive and incredibly diverse. It is possible to classify violence by the type of damage caused (physical, psychological), by forms of violent interaction (murder, terror, rape), by types of members of the conflict (interpersonal, intergroup, interracial) (Englander 27). The extreme forms of manifestation of violence are various kinds of war, genocide, terror, mass killings of people (Mazower 1159). In short, violence has the same diverse typology as the forms of human interaction. However, to study the problem, a different approach to classifying violence is more productive.

It is based on the division of violence into two main types – direct violence and structural violence (Mazower 1160). Direct violence involves the direct impact of the subject on the object, such as murder, bodily harm, detention, and exile. Structural violence is the creation of certain conditions (structures) that infringe on the needs and interests of people, for instance, the exploitation of man by man in society. Mazower and Fassin are advocates of this approach and explore the issue of violence in their works using this paradigm. They argue that historical events of violence should be analyzed not only by using a benchmark framework but also by identifying the elements of structural coercion.

Historians perceived violence as an instrument of transition, meaning that any transition is accompanied by some form of violence (Devji 801). In other words, violence is a temporary event which comes to an end when the transition finishes. However, as stated by Mazower, violence today has become permanent, and the events of the 20th century can be used as proof (1159). Even if it is more productive to view violence through the prism of structuralism, there should be a framework or a benchmark tool for comparison. Mazower states that the Holocaust is the defining event in the history of violence and can be used as a historical benchmark and framework for studying violence (1165).

The historian also suggests that, with the help of such a benchmark tool, it would be possible to determine the motives of violence and classify it (Mazower 1166). For instance, the Nazi Holocaust and the murder of Armenian civilians by Ottoman forces are similar at first glance. However, as Mazower himself suggests, when these two events are compared, it becomes evident that Ottomans’ goal was not to exterminate all Armenians, because Armenians in Istanbul were not touched (1177). Therefore, labeling this historical event as ethnic cleansing would not be utterly correct.

Mazower’s opinion on the correct classification of violent events is useful not only for historians and other scholars but also for the general public. For instance, by describing some event as a genocide or ethnic cleansing, historians will be able to attract more public attention to this event. In other words, neglected events can get more attention and will be studied in detail if labeled correctly.

Fassin is also an advocate of the theory of structural violence. However, his works deal more with the issue of legitimate violence (Fassin 281). Any government seeks to legitimize the types of coercion it uses and to make violence a necessary element of culture (Fassin 281). Persuasion, coercion, the authority of the leader, stimulation, manipulation are some of the means that can be used for achieving the objectives (Fassin 282).

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However, legitimacy is cross-cutting; for instance, rebels – carriers of collective unstructured and illegitimate violence – can be transformed into a regular army and acquire the status of legal force (collective structured violence) when they come to power (Fassin 285). At the same time, the defeated former legitimate authority becomes illegitimate (Fassin 285). The main goal of such political extremism is power, the possession of which makes it possible to manage people and resources and legally use violence (Fassin 281). As the government gains additional power, society is much less able to manage the situation (Fassin 290).

The less control society has, the more forms of violence can be practiced by the government (Fassin 290). The most radical forms of violence in society are civil war and genocide against citizens (Fassin 290). However, society may resist, and this resistance may also lead to violence in the form of rebellion (Fassin 281). Fassin states that the foundational building block of violence in a state is the inability of the government to protect its citizens from itself (281).

It is noteworthy that in European political philosophy, the problem of violence had not existed until the end of the 18th century. Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, or Locke – none of them, talking about politics, asked questions of violence. They were troubled by unrest, war, turmoil, uprisings, events that break the peace, but not violence. Only starting with Kant, the imperative of non-violence began to establish itself in European social thought. However, it took place along with the spread of its direct opposite – the poetization of violence, which can be accounted to Hegel.

Biopower Overview

Traditionally, the concept of biopower in philosophy is associated with the name of Michel Foucault and his concept of biopolitics, which was developed in the works of the philosopher in the 1970s (Cisney and Morar 8). The significance of Foucault’s concept of biopower is challenging to overrate, given that the socio-political theory of the philosopher can be generally called biopolitical (Cisney and Morar 10).

As one of the reasons, it is worth highlighting a concrete understanding of the interaction of power and knowledge (Cisney and Morar 10). A special place in this interaction is occupied by the problem of rationality, which, in essence, is crucial for the formation and development of the concept of biopolitics. The concept of biopower is one of the ideas that, over time, require rethinking not only because they are of research interest but also because they are the basis for understanding today’s reality (Cisney and Morar 6). It can be stated that the aspects of this concept, developed by Michel Foucault’s philosophies, receive ambiguous interpretations in modern thought, and indicate new directions for the formation of the theory of biopower.

Currently, various theorists are making attempts to develop the concept of biopower further. Thus, in a number of his works, J. Agamben criticizes M. Foucault for the excessive historical opposition of the concepts of biopower and sovereignty (qtd. in Cisney and Morar 151). He claims that they have always been closely related – the modern era, with its inherent unprecedented level of violence, made this connection obvious (qtd. in Cisney and Morar 151).

Negri and Hardt consider biopower as one of the most potent forms of real subordination of labor to capital while criticizing Foucault for not paying enough attention to its productive aspects (qtd. in Cisney and Morar 300). The real dynamics of biopower, according to Negri and Hardt, is such that it, being a useful tool for capitalist exploitation, at the same time, provides new opportunities for resistance to the existing order (Cisney and Morar 300).

Use of Biopower in the Middle East

One of the iconic paraphrases of conventional wisdom belonging to Michel Foucault is Carl von Clausewitz’s statement about war and politics (Von Clausewitz 15). He stated that politics is the continuation of the war by other means (Von Clausewitz 15). In other words, even in peacetime, a law is enforced by coercion. In a state-determined times of need, this force can directly work to legitimize what Giorgio Agamben calls a state of emergency (qtd. in Cisney and Morar 151).

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More broadly, if globalization has turned from the Cold War into a global civil war or created a new situation of permanent war, then the war turns out to be global politics. The United States launched the war in Iraq as a rebel operation (DeFronzo 6). Resistance to the rebels is a cultural war that is waged in America, just like in Iraq. In cultural warfare, the visual component plays a vital role, because the culture is the means, theater, and purpose of warfare.

In an era of global control by the United States, war is a counter-insurgency organized by cultural means. Global capital uses war as a means of ensuring cultural assimilation – the inclusion of citizens in the regime defined by this capital (Cisney and Morar 76). This process implies tacit acceptance of the excess of authority and a desire not to notice undeniable facts (Cisney and Morar 99). Countering the rebel movement has become an electronic version of imperialist methods of establishing law. In the United States, this approach succeeded because no protests are seen when there is a war against some uprising in the Middle East.

While violence is portrayed to be elsewhere in the world, biopower is heavily used to impose invisible violence upon citizens. Therefore, it can be said that the connected history of sovereignty as the spread of bio-power point us away from these reductive binaries.

Activities of the United States military in the Middle East can be related to the actions of Thomas Lawrence. The appeal to the figure of Lawrence in the context of counteracting the rebels is primarily due to his heroic image created in the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), where Peter O’Toole plays the role of Lawrence. The opposition to the rebel movement embodied in the image of Lawrence mixes glamorous Hollywood heroism with a colonial story about resembling the natives by adopting the local culture in order to destroy it.

In the movie, Lawrence can be seen as a means of accomplishing a mission that wishes to impose structural violence upon the native population. Lawrence actively infiltrated the Arabs, imbued with their spirit, and essentially led the guerrilla war of the Arabs against the Ottoman Empire. Arabian people are portrayed as belittled and as a means of accomplishing a political goal rather than people that may need help.

On the other hand, the scenes may be perceived as if Lawrence is helping the Arabs to achieve their liberation, but in reality, biopolitical methods are used to impose invisible violence upon the Arabs; therefore, the Arabs should be considered the agency. It was not the Arabs who benefited the most from the downfall of the Ottoman Empire. The emergence of the Arab state was not the ultimate goal of British intelligence. The same is true in The Battle of Algiers, but the reactions of the general public to these movies are different.

While Lawrence is viewed as a hero, The Battle of Algiers was banned in France because there were some who criticized the government for the used methods in the war against Algeria (Kaufmann). However, it should be noted that the majority of the public received the portrayal well. Fictional realism created a perception of a documentary rather than fiction. Audiences may have received the representation of Algerians as if it was a historical fact rather than the director’s view of the events. Therefore, the Algerians are the agency, but the spread of biopower hides this imagery.


Violence has become one of the most significant issues of contemporary society. Human nature can be partially for our such attributes, but there is a fact that cannot be ignored. Governments’ exercise of biopower is becoming more evident as the technology progresses. The number of casualties caused by political unrest is significantly higher than the number of victims affected by terrorist acts. Therefore, contemporary violence should be viewed through the prism of structuralism, as suggested by many scholars, including Fassin and Mazower. This paper gave an overview of violence and its classification, explored the notion of biopower and biopolitics, and gave examples by discussing Lawrence of Arabia and The Battle of Algiers.


Cisney, Vernon, and Nicolae Morar, editors. Biopower: Foucault and Beyond. University of Chicago Press, 2016.

DeFronzo, James. The Iraq War: Origins and Consequences. Routledge, 2018.

Devji, Faisal. “Communities of Violence.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 45, no. 4, 2013, pp. 801-803.

Englander, Elizabeth Kande L. Understanding Violence. Routledge, 2017.

Fassin, Didier. “The Trace: Violence, Truth, and the Politics of the Body.” Social Research: An International Quarterly, vol. 78 no. 2, 2011, pp. 281-298.

Kaufmann, Michael. “The World: Film Studies; What Does the Pentagon See in ‘Battle of Algiers’?The New York Times. 2003. Web.

Mazower, Mark. “Violence and the State in the Twentieth Century.” The American Historical Review, vol. 107, no. 4, 2002, pp. 1158-1178.

Von Clausewitz, Carl. Carl von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings. Princeton University Press, 2014.

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