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Tocqueville in Arabia

Dilemmas in a Democratic Age

We live in the democratic age. So wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, in 1835, in his magisterial work, Democracy in America. This did not mean, as so many have believed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, that the political apparatus of democracy would sweep the world. Rather, Tocqueville meant that as each nation left behind the vestiges of its aristocracy, life for its citizens or subjects would be increasingly isolated and lonely.

In America, more than a half century of scholarship has explored and chronicled our growing isolation and loneliness.  What of the Middle East? Does Tocqueville prediction—confirmed already by the American experience—hold true there as well? Americans look to the Middle East and see a rich network of familial and tribal linkages that seem to suggest that Tocqueville’s analysis does not apply. A closer look reveals that this is not true. In the Middle East today, citizens and subjects live amidst a profound tension: familial and tribal linkages hold them fast, and at the same time rapid modernization has left them as isolated and lonely as so many Americans are today. The looming question, anticipated so long ago by Tocqueville, is how they will respond to this isolation and loneliness.

Joshua Mitchell has spent years teaching Tocqueville’s classic account, Democracy in America, in America and the Arab Gulf and, with Tocqueville in Arabia, he offers a profound account of how the crisis of isolation and loneliness is playing out in similar and in different ways, in America and in the Middle East. While American students tend to value individualism and commercial self-interest, Middle Eastern students have grave doubts about individualism and a deep suspicion about capitalism, which they believe risks the destruction of long-held loyalties and obligations. Where American students, in their more reflective moments, long for more durable links than they currently have, the bonds that constrain the freedoms Middle Eastern students imagine the modern world offers at once frighten them and enkindle their imagination. When pondering suffering, American students tend to believe its causes can be engineered away, through better education and the advances of science. Middle Eastern students tend still to offer religious accounts, but are also enticed by the answers Americans give―and wonder if the two accounts can coexist at all. Moving back and forth between self-understandings in America and in the Middle East, Mitchell offers a framework for understanding the common challenges in both regions, and highlights the great temptation both will have to overcome—rejecting the seeming incoherence of the democratic age, and opting for one or another scheme to re-enchant the world. Whether these schemes take the form of various purported Islamic movements in the Middle East, or the form of enchanted nationalism in American and in Europe, the remedy sought will not cure the ailment of the democratic age. About this, Mitchell comes to the defense Tocqueville long ago offered: the dilemmas of the democratic age can be courageously endured, but they cannot resolved.

We live in a time rife with mutual misunderstandings between America and the Middle East.  Tocqueville in Arabia offers a guide to the present, troubled times, leavened by the author’s hopes about the future.

208 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2013

Middle Eastern Studies

Philosophy: Philosophy of Society

Political Science: Political and Social Theory


Tocqueville in Arabia is a searching and eloquent meditation concerning the impact of the democratic spirit on students in a turbulent Middle East where the idea of equality has arrived recently and has been refracted through distinctive cultural, political, and religious lenses as well as on students in America, where the idea of equality has advanced far and wide. Joshua Mitchell weaves together keen observations of his students in Qatar and Iraq and at Georgetown University in Washington, subtle reflections on his lifetime of ties to the Arab word, and deft exposition of works of political philosophy, especially Tocqueville but with astute attention also given to Rousseau, Smith, and Marx. By throwing into sharp relief the expectations, aspirations, and anxieties that characterize young men and women today in regions of the world unequally touched by the spirit of equality, Mitchell illuminates the future of democracy and freedom."

Peter Berkowitz, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

“Tocqueville taught us how much can be learned about one culture seen through the lens of someone intelligent and sympathetic from another. Joshua Mitchell knows Tocqueville and Arabia, and his readers will come to know both better.”

George F. Will

“In Tocqueville in Arabia, Joshua Mitchell explores the Middle East as a gifted scholar and a brilliant teacher. His book is an enticing and courageous reading of contemporary life among the younger generation in the Middle East, and a sober account of the challenges to modernity that lay ahead. This remarkable book, which draws on the philosophical writings of Tocqueville without being arcane or tendentious, illuminates what is going on in the hearts and minds of young people in the Middle East—and in America too. Tocqueville in Arabia is an outstanding example of how scholarship can shed light on the march of democracy and equality in our times.”

Yossi Shain, Georgetown University

Tocqueville in Arabia succeeds in a task that would have seemed nearly impossible—that of making Tocqueville, who is often pressed into service to comment on contemporary American life, a plausible commentator on the contemporary Middle East.  . . . [Mitchell] argues that support for liberal arts education in the Middle East is essential. His view may seem quixotic, but he makes a powerful case that it is the long view—and the right one.”

American Conservative

"Like Alexis de Tocqueville and his classic account Democracy in America, Joshua Mitchell analyzes the potential for democracy in the Middle East post–Arab Spring, offering clarity on the troubled present and an optimistic view of the future."

Barnes & Noble Review

“Joshua Mitchell’s Tocqueville in Arabia is a many-sided book. Part memoir, part geopolitical analysis, part rumination on the souls of the young—focus your reading one way and Mitchell proposes an understanding of the Middle East based on the spiritual sociology of Alexis de Tocqueville. Focus your reading another way and he offers a teacher’s commentary on the tastes and mental habits of elite university students in Qatar, Iraq, and the United States. Taken together, this short book honors and inhabits Tocqueville’s method and voice, illuminating the essence of liberal modernity by the lights of the Middle East and the inner consciousness of the Arab world by the prospect of a dawning modernity. . . . Mitchell’s experiences in the Middle East and his ruminations about higher education breathe new life into Tocqueville’s thought just as Tocqueville elucidates the Arab world’s encounter with democratic modernity. Creative, learned, at its best Tocqueville in Arabia is a model for political theory to analyze one of the titanic political struggles of our age.”

National Interest

“A personal and passionate meditation. . . . Mitchell provides an excellent demonstration of the ways in which Tocqueville’s modes of analysis and insights can be updated to shed more light on major issues confronting democratic societies like our own and those in the making. It also offers the basis for a genuine conversation between conservative and liberal readings of Tocqueville concerning the future of democracy in the twenty-first century and the validity of alternative paths to the preservation of freedom.”

Perspectives on Politics

“Mitchell brings his long experience of the Middle East to bear in Tocqueville in Arabia. The result is an intriguing, insightful, sometimes profound study of the effects of the democratic age on the human condition.”


“Mitchell’s style of personal storytelling engages the reader and his original application of Tocqueville’s ‘democratic man’ to a Middle Eastern context proves to be valuable, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring.”

Political Studies Review

Table of Contents

1          Colliding and Converging
2          Man, the Lonely Animal
3          The Household: Sustenance
and Reproduction
4          Religion

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