The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 3 (Fall 2014)

Democracy Labs

Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age

Joshua Mitchell

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.3 (Fall 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 3)

For five of the past seven years, I have been in the Middle East,” writes Joshua Mitchell, a professor of political theory at Georgetown University. During much of that time, Mitchell was involved in the creation of a branch of Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He also taught a survey course in Western political thought at the new branch, covering much of the same material he addresses with his American students. He quickly discovered that it met with very different receptions from the Qataris. What the Americans took for granted—for instance, the superiority of liberal democracy—the Qatari students questioned. What the American students barely noticed—religious content, for example—the Qatari students immediately understood as important.

Less an account of such responses than Mitchell’s own musings on the cultural worlds each set of students inhabits, Tocqueville in Arabia is, by the author’s own admission, a little bit Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and a little bit Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Above all else, though, it is an homage to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Tocqueville’s classic work is Mitchell’s guide for many reasons, chief among them that he loves the book. But Tocqueville, with his unrivaled skill in peeling apart the different layers of cultural change, is also a natural choice. In some ways, Qatar resembles Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century America more closely than modern America does. It is still a society where people are linked together in a hierarchy that connects those above to those below, the past to the future. It’s also a society where religion is still a powerful force.

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B.D. McClay is associate editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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