Tolerance Under Authoritarianism: State, Society, and the Politics of Avoidance (in preparation)

My second book project, conceived in 2017 and planned for completion in 2023, investigates how tolerance emerges and may evolve in the context of authoritarianism. Because the dominant approach in political science is to study tolerance in connection to liberal democracy, comparatively little is known about the origins, practices, uses, and implications of tolerance within contemporary authoritarian regimes. Tolerance Under Authoritarianism helps fill this gap through the use of a mixed-method research design. Both the book proposal (with detailed chapter outline) and a draft of the first chapter are complete.

Building on many of the themes in my first book, Bedouins into Bourgeois: Remaking Citizens for Globalization, published by Cambridge University Press in 2017, I expect to make several contributions to our understanding of nationalism, state-led social engineering, and state-society relations. First, the book is the only one, to my knowledge, that looks squarely at the dynamics of tolerance under authoritarianism, so it should make a unique theoretical contribution. Drawing from recent political theory, I develop a framework suited to studying tolerance in diverse political contexts, including closed authoritarian ones. Without making normative judgments, the framework captures minimally tolerant responses to difference (e.g., indifference, resigned acceptance); moderate ones (e.g., social and business interaction); and maximal ones (e.g., respect, support for rights).

Second, the book offers empirical findings on both state and society-level visions of tolerance within contemporary authoritarian regimes. Empirical chapters will draw from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which are valuable sites for empirical data collection on authoritarian social engineering. In all three countries, governments, expert communities, and civil societies are actively promoting tolerance in striking ways that are not well understood, and their strategies may trigger intended as well as unintended consequences. For example, the UAE has established a Ministry of Tolerance, and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince aims to reinstate “moderate Islam” through a variety of mechanisms. To better understand the origins and justifications of these efforts, I will combine evidence from field-based interviews, surveys, focus groups, and interpretive analysis of government strategy documents. These will build on research connections I made with ruling elites during the fieldwork for my first book (including a valuable connection to one of the UAE’s ruling monarchs, whom I have been able to interview several times). A key goal will be to uncover gaps between state and society-level perspectives on what “tolerance” means, who benefits from it, and what it ought to require.

Third, I will provide evidence not only on visions of tolerance under authoritarianism, but also everyday practice. My fieldwork evidence suggests that—in practice—minimal variations on tolerance dominate, both on the part of state and society, and may be best understood as a tactful politics of avoidance. I plan to engage ethnographic and experimental methods to study practices such as gender segregation, rhetorical deflection, concealment, and private iconoclasm that avoid conflict and confrontation, and which contrast sharply with the more active and affirmative approaches to difference that are valorized in many liberal democracies. Using the example of gender segregation, I also investigate potential advantages and disadvantages of such a politics of avoidance given socio-political constraints.

Fourth, I consider the implications of these findings for theory and practice. On the practical side, the book will offer original data from experiments testing hypotheses about what strategies may promote tolerance under authoritarianism. In contrast to strategies in liberal democracies—which typically emphasize the benefits of tolerance for liberal democracy and may therefore fail to resonate in authoritarian contexts—the hypotheses I plan to test will focus more on pragmatic considerations, such as security, personal well-being, and economic growth. These experiments will also test hypotheses about potentially unintended consequences of authoritarian tolerance initiatives. On the theoretical side, I will demonstrate how the findings align with the efforts of historians and historically-oriented theorists to render the study of tolerance more broad-minded and inclusive, and thus better suited to the extraordinarily diverse conditions produced by globalization.

The project is partly inspired by my first book, Bedouins into Bourgeois, in which I found evidence that UAE education reformers had succeeded in raising young citizens’ appreciation for the value of tolerance, using surveys and a difference-in-difference empirical strategy. Yet my qualitative fieldwork evidence suggested that “tolerance” was being interpreted in contradictory ways across state and society. The second book also builds upon several of my recently completed papers, including “Reconsidering Tolerance: Insights from Political Theory and Three Experiments” (forthcoming in the British Journal of Political Science, with Teresa M. Bejan, University of Oxford, and published online FirstView in 2019); “Adviser to the King: Experts, Rationalization, and Legitimacy” (World Politics, 2019); and “Gender Segregation as Social Engineering: Exploring the Civic Costs in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait” (invited presentation at the Comparative Politics Workshop at the University of California, Berkeley in 2017).

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Tolerance in Historical and Comparative Perspective

Chapter 2. Authoritarian Visions of Tolerance

Chapter 3. Societal Visions of Tolerance

Chapter 4. Double Lives, Doublespeak, and the Politics of Avoidance

Chapter 5. The Case of Gender Segregation

Chapter 6. Engineering Tolerance: Strategies and Outcomes

Chapter 7. Conclusion

Bedouins into Bourgeois: Remaking Citizens for Globalization (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017)

Amazon link. Reviewed by Madawi Al-Rasheed on the Middle East Centre Blog at the London School of Economics (LSE), in a Critical Dialogue for Perspectives on Politics, and also in outlets such as the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Journal of Arabian Studies, and Mediterranean Politics.

The “making of citizens” is a classic challenge, but also an evolving one, and we know little about how states are attempting to cultivate citizens in the current globalized market era—what I call the making of citizens, 2.0. That gap in our knowledge provides the primary rationale for my first book book. In it, I take a multi-method approach to explore how state leaders are adapting their citizen-building strategies to contemporary global realities, and what outcomes they are achieving—both intended and unintended. Like the nineteenth century Parisian elites in Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchman, who sought to create loyal French citizens out of peasants, ruling elites in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) hope to convert their citizens—many of Bedouin descent—into entrepreneurial bourgeois, without altering the political status quo. In the Middle East, such efforts to build a “new Arab citizen” who is better equipped to compete in market economies—and, so the thinking goes, less susceptible to radicalism—have been widely heralded as a way forward for the troubled region.

The book first situates contemporary challenges within the broader literature on citizen-building and nationalism, and then turns to the origins, goals, and outcomes of state-led social engineering in the UAE. Ruling elites are emphasizing education reform, symbolism, and spectacle—among other time-honored methods of state-led social engineering—to promote what they see as an enlightenment and knowledge renaissance in the Arab world, while attempting to direct citizens toward ideals of liberalism, neoliberalism, and authoritarianism. What are the outcomes of such “pro-globalization” and “pro-market” social engineering? Are elites succeeding in instilling achievement-oriented mindsets in citizens, promoting interest in entrepreneurship and private-sector work, fostering civility and civic-mindedness, and reducing reliance on state jobs and other forms of government largesse? Why or why not? To answer these questions, I use a variety of methods ranging from palace ethnography to difference-in-difference survey designs and randomized experiments, building knowledge about how states try to cultivate more development-friendly cultures, and why some strategies are more successful than others. The final chapters examine the reasons for outcomes and their generalizability to other contexts. I also investigate social engineering alternatives that reframe nationalism to better prepare and motivate citizens for a global market era, and consider the deeper question of citizen-building in “imperfect” political contexts.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Rethinking the Making of Citizens

Chapter 2. Seeing Like a Sheikh

Chapter 3. Enlightenment under Autocracy

Chapter 4. Symbolism, Spectacle, and the Shaping of the Post-Petroleum Citizen

Chapter 5. From Enlightenment to Entitlement: Intended and Unintended Outcomes of Social Engineering

Chapter 6. Nationalism as Self-Esteem Building: Explaining the Paradox of the Entitled Patriot

Chapter 7. Conclusion