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Tocqueville in Arabia

Dilemmas in a Democratic Age

Joshua Mitchell

Tocqueville in Arabia

Joshua Mitchell

208 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2013
Cloth $20.00 ISBN: 9780226087313 Published August 2013
E-book $20.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226087450 Published August 2013
The Arab Spring, with its calls for sweeping political change, marked the most profound popular uprising in the Middle East for generations. But if the nascent democracies born of these protests are to succeed in the absence of a strong democratic tradition, their success will depend in part on an understanding of how Middle Easterners view themselves, their allegiances to family and religion, and their relationship with the wider world in which they are increasingly integrated.

Many of these same questions were raised by Alexis de Tocqueville during his 1831 tour of America, itself then a rising democracy. Joshua Mitchell 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 personal take. One of the reasons for the book’s widespread popularity in the region is that its commentary on the challenges of democracy and the seemingly contradictory concepts of equality and individuality continue to speak to current debates. While Mitchell’s American students tended to value the individualism of commercial self-interest, his Middle Eastern students had grave doubts about individualism and a deep suspicion for capitalism, which they saw as risking the destruction of long-held loyalties and obligations. When asked about suffering, American students answered in psychological or sociological terms, while Middle Eastern students understood it in terms of religion. Mitchell describes modern democratic man as becoming what Tocqueville predicted: a “distinct kind of humanity” that would be increasingly isolated and alone. Whatever their differences, students in both worlds were grappling with a sense of disconnectedness that social media does little to remedy.

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

1          Colliding and Converging
2          Man, the Lonely Animal
3          The Household: Sustenance
and Reproduction
4          Religion
Review Quotes
Peter Berkowitz, Hoover Institution, Stanford University
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."

George F. Will
“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.”
Yossi Shain, Georgetown University
“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.”

American Conservative
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.”
Barnes & Noble Review
"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."
National Interest
“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.”
Perspectives on Politics
“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.”
“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.”
Political Studies Review
“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.”
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