Are Arabs forever doomed to alternate between dictatorship and religious extremism? Is there something about their culture and beliefs that makes them uniquely unable to build stable and prosperous civil societies?
I now often hear those questions, which three years ago would have been considered offensive and misleading, being posed out loud and seriously by scholars, journalists and diplomats, among them a great many Arabs.
It's an old notion – that there is something about the 400 million people living in the 21 countries between Mauritania and Oman that makes them uniquely ungovernable, except harshly: In this view, if they're not under the thumb of autocrats, they will choose religious extremism. That belief was what kept the region's postcolonial kingdoms and dictatorships in power for decades – and caused countries such as Canada to keep recognizing and providing aid to them.
And now, after the successful Arab revolutions of 2011 have descended into the inevitable interval of counter- and counter-counter-revolutions, after elections in Gaza and Egypt have brought unsavoury Islamists to power, after Hamas became the leading force in Palestine's response to Israel, after Syria's popular opposition movement has coughed up the black-clad ISIL militia, those questions are once again being taken seriously.
It can't be blamed on religion alone (the largest Muslim countries, such as Indonesia and Bangladesh, have no such problem) or geography (non-Arab African and Middle Eastern countries have fared much better). It is something about Arabs. Or, perhaps, something about the way Arab countries and populations have been treated. But is it permanent?
That is the question that has animated two experienced Mideast scholars whose new books scrutinize the Arab moment of transition.
Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution scholar, looked inside the new Islamist movements in half a dozen countries for his book Temptations of Power. He sees a paradox created by six decades of dictatorship: Because the ideas of liberalism, equality and secularism were so badly poisoned by Arab autocrats, who used the concepts to attract aid and as foils for their self-empowerment, the post-autocratic alternative is bound to be an "illiberal democracy." Religious faith became the main form of popular dissent (it wasn't always that way) so, in an alarming downward spiral, the Islamist parties become more popular among voters the more they promise to restrict rights and limit equality. In this view, Arabs at the moment can choose either freedom or democracy, but not both.
"Just as economic cleavages became entrenched in Western democracies," Mr. Hamid writes, "ideological cleavages around the role of religion in public life are solidifying themselves across the Middle East."
He argues that, contrary to what we may think, Islamist movements become more moderate, liberal and pragmatic when they are repressed and limited in their ability to act: Unrestricted power virtually forces them to become extreme (as was the case with Egypt's Islamist president Mohamed Morsi). As a result, he says, Western countries should intervene with sanctions and, more importantly, incentives and rewards (such as promises of free-trade deals for rights-abiding states) to constrain them.
Juan Cole, a Mideast scholar at the University of Michigan, has written the mirror-image book. His field work, in the same countries over a similar period, was among Arab liberal and nationalist movements (that is, anti-Islamists). His book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East, concludes that the Arab revolutions are now where the French Revolution was in 1852, and where Eastern European democracy was after the Prague Spring was crushed in 1968: trapped between thesis and antithesis, waiting for the next generation to step in.
That (huge) young Arab generation, he notes, is less prone to fall for the logic of illiberal democracy versus undemocratic faux-liberalism: It is far more literate, urban and connected and, crucially, measurably less religiously observant or interested in sharia law. Or most of it is: There is a "polarization" of Arab millennials "with most of them tending to be less observant but a significant number supporting fundamentalism. Some of the vehemence of the religious right," he notes, "may be in part a reaction against this decline in the proportion of observant Muslims in this generation." As other scholars have noted, fundamentalism tends to be a response to a wider secularization of society.
So there may continue to be extremist movements such as ISIL (which is supported by only 4 per cent of Syrians), but far less support for mainstream electoral religious parties – or for the dictators and generals who oppose them.
From these studies comes an image of a region that, for the moment, is trapped between extremes. But it is only a moment – 2011, whatever its price in blood and instability, at least allowed change to begin, and created an opening for something other than dictatorship or religious extremism. The Arab countries are not descending into chaos, but rather passing through it.