A 19th Century Frenchman Explains the 21st Century Middle East

Drawing on his recent book, Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age, Joshua Mitchell applies the French thinker’s insights about the emergence of democracy to today’s Middle East:

Alexis de Tocqueville long ago wrote that the democratic age is upon us. By this he meant that the “links” to family and tribe that held us fast in the aristocratic age were breaking apart before our eyes. dish_Alexis_de_tocqueville_croppedThe political consequence of this social de-linkage, however, was not necessarily benign democratic governance. Indeed, he worried that attempts would be made to refortify the old links, to reaffirm roles at the moment when delinked persons were emerging. What we today often identify as “Islamic Fundamentalism” is just such an attempt to re-fortify the old links, to re-enchant the world. Herein lays the dilemma of the Middle East. Caught in the matrix of the political and social arrangements of the twentieth century that defy credulity, drawn and at the same time repulsed by the fugitive freedom they see on Western shores but only dimly understand, nascent citizens more than occasionally dream of returning to an enchanted world for which an imagined Islam provides a ready guide.

Under these wildly unstable conditions, U.S. foreign policy-makers should take the long view. Democratic governance will not arrive soon in the Middle East. If it does at all, it will emerge only when families and tribes become much less important than they now are. Citizens and entrepreneurs―the building blocks of democratic governance and of market commerce―do not spring up spontaneously out of societies where families and tribes still retain their hold on the imagination. The slow process by which that changes, moreover, cannot easily be accelerated by U.S. foreign policy.

In the meantime, in the interludes of peace, diplomatic and cultural outreach and, above all, higher education initiatives intended to help the younger generation understand and thrive in the disenchanted world it will inherit offer perhaps the most constructive ways to engage the region.

Update from a reader:

Let’s face it. Nothing explains the Middle East.

(Image of Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau via Wikimedia Commons)