cover of book
by Joshua Mitchell
University of Chicago Press, 2013
eISBN: 978-0-226-08745-0 | Cloth: 978-0-226-08731-3
Library of Congress Classification JA88.Q2M583 2013
Dewey Decimal Classification 320.973

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.