Violence and legal responsibility:

the construction of criminal narratives in contemporary Syria


Concepts of collective and individual legal responsibility in the Islamic world,

Danish Institute in Damascus, 5-8 May 2005.


Zouhair Ghazzal

Loyola University Chicago




In many rural and semi-urban communities of the eastern Mediterranean, violence may constitute a means, both political and economic, for social cohesion among agnatically organized groups. It may simultaneously be a means to ensure male domination through the perpetration of values along honor and shame codes. The advent of the modern authoritarian nation-state, after centuries of Ottoman decentralized feudalism, has forced such communities to articulate and legitimize their violence through narratives in order to account for what state institutions might classify as “criminal behavior.” In effect, the sudden advent of the modern nation-state implies, above all, that the state has the legitimate right to monopolize violence, a precept which often leads to the criminilization of pre-state violence. Thus, for instance, a criminal file typically narrates violence from the viewpoint of actors unevenly distributed along the social spectrum: policemen, prosecutors, judges, plaintiffs and defendants, witnesses, doctors and psychiatrists. In all such narrations, the attempt is either to legitimize or delegitimize violence, hence to criminalize it in case of any wrongdoing. The same incident is thus narrated from different standpoints—even though, in the final analysis, the one adopted by the courts is the one which prevails—creating various linguistic constructions of collective and individual legal responsibility.


Based on criminal cases of the last couple decades from the regions of Aleppo and Idlib (north of Syria), this paper would like to explore collective and individual legal responsibility from narratives which have been generated by actors in the wake of violent acts, and upon criminal investigations by the state authorities. Once acts of violence have been labeled as “criminal” by the state, they have to be accounted for by social actors for the sake of one’s own community and the other as well (the judicial authorities and the nation as-a-whole). A new form of responsibility may henceforth emerge.