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A few days ago, I was asked: "Do you believe, in view of all that has happened, that Bashar al-Assad should go or stay?" My answer was not as straightforward as it used to be, but then again neither is the question. "I've always believed Assad should go, but at this stage, whether he does or not, Syria will continue to be in turmoil," I replied. "I'm as opposed to the jihadists as I am to Assad, and unfortunately the moderates have been sidelined." 

This is the general tragedy of the Arab world, that people seem to be stuck between nationalistic or religious fascism. The Arab Spring has highlighted this morbid choice, with jihadism on the rise and dictators determined to cling to power at all costs.

A few days ago, I was asked: "Do you believe, in view of all that has happened, that Bashar al-Assad should go or stay?" My answer was not as straightforward as it used to be, but then again neither is the question.

"I've always believed Assad should go, but at this stage, whether he does or not, Syria will continue to be in turmoil," I replied. "I'm as opposed to the 'jihadists' as I am to Assad, and unfortunately the moderates have been sidelined." 

This is the general tragedy of the Arab world, that people seem to be stuck between nationalistic or religious fascism. The Arab Spring has highlighted this morbid choice, with "jihadism" on the rise and dictators determined to cling to power at all cost.

I have listened in horror at Arabs, particularly the older generations, claiming that the people of the region are not capable of democracy, let alone prepared for it. While I still vehemently believe this view to be not just wrong but deeply insulting, I can understand why such people feel vindicated by the apparent failure of the Arab Spring.

Dichotomy

However, the Arab Spring did not create this dichotomy. Rather, it brought it out into the open by challenging a rigid, stagnant, decades-old regional order. Jihadism was around long before the Arab Spring, and ever since independence from colonialism, the region's dictators have insisted that the only alternative to their rule would be religious extremism and national chaos.

That this has come to pass in several countries in the last few years does not necessarily prove them right. Various factors have led to the current regional fractures, not least the autocratic policies that have created or exacerbated the very radicalism they claim to be champions against. Both extremes have developed a symbiotic relationship of using each other's abuses to bolster their own ranks and justify their own repression.

Both extremes have developed a symbiotic relationship of using each other's abuses to bolster their own ranks and justify their own repression.

Despite public statements to the contrary, this relationship is fostered in practise by outside powers, whose regional influence benefits from division, as do their economies from ensuing arms sales and trade deals.

The current scenario can be viewed as a pendulum. The more extreme the ideology being challenged or toppled, the greater the swing the other way. The region has not had sufficient time for the pendulum to stabilise, which would enable a middle ground to be found. A varied, mature polity has not yet had the chance to develop. This is to be expected after decades of one-party rule.

Taking on authoritarianism, as difficult as this is, pales into comparison with the challenges of the aftermath: the very reinvention and rebuilding of states, infrastructure, institutions, and societies. Such a mammoth task was never going to be quick or easy.

Differing visions

With freedom of expression long banned, opposition movements have had to spring up out of nowhere, organise and articulate themselves almost immediately, in some cases learn to govern and democratise with no prior experience, and cooperate with, or challenge, other groups with different visions for the future.

"Jihadists" have taken advantage of the resulting uncertainty, chaos, and resentment. While they have never represented more than a fanatic fringe, their arms and brutality easily garner worldwide attention and territorial expansion. This is as much a concern for moderate "Islamist" movements that are conflated with "jihadist" groups, as it is for secular parties.

Populations are understandably impatient for change and mistrustful of authority. However, given the experiences of Syria, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and other states, they are also fearful of the consequences of challenging it. It is only natural, under these circumstances, that the road will be as long as it is bumpy.

There is a belief in the West that Islam and Islamism are the same, and this is why the Middle East is in such turmoil today. However, communities and societies generally tend to rally around faith in times of hardship and when religious expression is repressed. This happened with Christianity in communist Eastern Europe, Islam in the Caucasus and Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union, and Judaism during its persecution in Europe.

In the case of the Arab world, where public protest has traditionally been banned and violently suppressed, the mosque has often been the only place where dissent could be vocalised and organised. Such restrictions invariably create the potential for radicalisation.

No quick fixes

Furthermore, the region is experiencing a host of severe economic, political, social, and environmental problems that preceded the Arab Spring, and for which there are no quick fixes. Some of these issues have been exacerbated by the global economic downturn, over which regional governments have little if any control. Similarly, dependence on faith increases under poverty, creating the potential for radicalisation.

Those who take the long view see the current instability, while deeply worrying, as part of the process of the region's countries finding their way amid their diverse communities and ideologies. Such profound change is seldom smooth, however much we would like it to be.

Critics say this view is naive, but I refuse to believe that Arabs - with their rich history, culture and resources - are forever doomed to choose between those who rule and kill in the name of religion, and those who do so out of personal greed and power.

As well as the anti-government revolutions and protest movements of the Arab Spring, there have been popular revolts against "jihadist" groups. Examples include al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Shabab in Somalia, and slightly further afield, Ansar al-Din in Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria. This highlights a reality rather than blind hope: that the peoples of the region will not accept either option in the long run.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.

Source: Al Jazeera