Posted by: r.m. | April 9, 2014

Charbel Nahas: Thinking critically about violence

Yesterday, Charbel Nahas spoke at an AUB event entitled ‘A Rupture of Amnesia’ about the Lebanese civil war.  He was his typical self: pushing the audience to think critically.

He did not simply present rote information about the war – numbers of people killed, money lost, etc.  He took us deeper and raised essential contextual points.

What follows are my own notes from Charbel Nahas’ talk. His presentation and his answers to the questions posed in the discussion alone can become a full university semester course.

Speaking from his experience within the Minister (reminder: he was both Minister of Telecommunications and Minister of Labor) and his experience of the Parliament, he said that Parliament (and to a lesser extent, the Ministries) is (are) empty of decisions.  They come to speak loyalties to their own communities. When they declare that they now “want to talk politics,” that is when the public intimidations begin.

He reminded the audience that, contrary to current popular perception, the war in Lebanon did begin with enthusiasm.  People volunteered to fight; it was only a few years later that people were receiving salaries to participate.

While the public memory of the civil war is missing, the private (selective) memories of the war are strong and known.

1. We need to recognize that threats of violence and poverty are used together.  Note. This government threatens us with additional poverty.  And it is all too often that we hear people say that it is good that all the warlords are together in Parliament now; that means they won’t drag us back into war.  Violence and Poverty — two main pillars of intimidation in today’s politics.

2. Violence is not an exception to human life.  It is new that societies have a problem with violence.  Note the extent: we don’t want to see animals killed; we would rather get our meat (those of us who eat meat) from packages presented in such a way as not to resemble the animal itself.  Note the use of drones.

3. Why is there violence in politics? Note that when the weak and the strong fight, this needs to be examined relatively and not with absolute terms.  Violence can arise from many things, including an incorrect assessment of one’s strengths (or the strengths of another) and from bluffing.  Violence can also be presented as the only alternative.

4. Violence negates the daily life, and therefore, by pushing the necessary daily activities aside, violence itself becomes empowered.

5. Violence constructs its players. It is not the players that construct the violence.  Just as stories of wars arise after the wars themselves, the identities of the warring factions arise as a consequence of the violence; they are not the cause of the violence.  Stop: think about this.

6. The warring factions cooperate with their warring opposing parties to remove their own competitors.  (Example: people believing in “x” and fighting “y” will cooperate with “y” to weaken those standing closer to “x” so that “x” and “y” will be left alone in the battlefield. Neither “x” nor “y” want competition on the battlefield.)

7. Neither the losing nor the winning parties arise out of war like they entered into it. The social make up of winning parties is transformed, nationally and internationally.  Without WWI, the Bolshevik revolution would have been harder.  Without WWII, the USSR would have been harder.

8.  Lebanon: When the political parties discovered that the State was disintegrating (post-Chehab), they took part in its disintegration by dismantling state security apparatus and building their own militias.  They instituted a violence of the perception of hegemony.

9. Every war is a civil war.

10.  We in Lebanon have been impacted by the civil war in more ways than numbers of killed, wounded, missing, etc.  Our relationships to each other and ourselves have changed.  Our rush to consumption is indicative of our fatalism.  Our acceptance of fortune tellers is indicative of our sense of impotence, arising from our sense of “defeat” from the war.  Our language is poisoned; the words we use to identify geographical areas in Lebanon has been poisoned.  What does it mean when we say “Jabal” for example?  Think about it.  Our economy has changed, becoming a rentier economy that exports degrees.  Our expectations and ambitions are lowered.

During the Q and A, Charbel Nahas shared other critical elements

* The right to strike is similar to the unequal confrontations between the weak and the strong. A capitalist system is, by nature, undemocratic. The owners dictate to the workers.  There is a small space left open – a space for the unions and workers to strike.  The workers lose when they strike (they don’t get paid) and they cause a loss to the capitalists, and thus force them to the table. Nahas raised the issue of Spinneys. He asked the audience: Would you go to support the workers who were fired when they insisted on the enforcement of the labor law?

* The question of ‘what is the solution’ implies that there is a problem.  There isn’t a problem.  There is a whole system.  So the correct question is: What is to be done?  What is to be done to change the system? First, develop critical thinking.  Be critical thinkers!  Nahas spoke about how disappointed he is with the academic nature of the AUB – and other universities (AUB is not the exception) and their reliance on Multiple Choice questions, on students’ not taking notes in class but merely asking for a textbook to memorize.  Think!  Second, deal with the past and its consequences.  Note the perspectives that are haunting our society.  People are too afraid to demand their rights, scared to lose the ill they know and now have.  Note how people now insist on showing their identities – whether through long beards, large crosses, or wearing the kuffiyes.  To whom are they displaying this identity, either religious or political? Not to others. Rather, it is a display of loyalty to themselves, and it aids to deny the thinking-ability of the other.

* In response to a question about the consequences of the law of amnesty, Nahas spoke about the need to contextualize the responsibility of violence.  The historic, political and societal responsibilities of violence, a responsibility arising from decision – and the absence of decisions – that allowed violence to be accepted, normalized, develop.  These responsibilities are still missing. They need to be created.

* In response to a question about the minimum wage debate (see:, Nahas reminded us that from 1995 to 2012, the authorities — all of them, by consensus — abstained from re-examining the minimum wage in relation to inflation, as the law clearly demands.  During all that time, the unions were silent also.  Meanwhile, the concentration of wealth intensified; more people emigrated.  Now, there is is a confrontation between salaried people and those controlling the rentier economy. This confrontation took 2.5 years in the making. And no, a rise in minimum wage will not cause a rise in prices.

* In response to a question about the possibility of nonviolence between the Palestinians and Lebanese during the war, Nahas reminded the audience that the Palestinians cannot be lumped into one group.  Are Yasser Arafat and George Habash one thing?

* In response to a question about the Orthodox Election Proposal (which calls for each religious sect to vote for its own sect, Lebanon one voting district, and proportional representation), he said that the Parliament is currently a farce. No discussions are held in Parliament.  So any attempt to shake it is welcome.

I would love a transcript of his presentation.  Charbel Nahas gave more than I was able to transcribe.  He presented details and details to strengthen the points that he made.  Still the take home message? Be critical thinkers.


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