We are living in an era of remarkable world-wide transformation, which has accelerated dramatically in just the last few decades. The collapse of communism led to the emergence of free market democracies throughout Eastern and Central Europe. Previously marginal economies in the Arab Gulf and South and Southeast Asia have emerged as global players, while at home they have experienced dramatic modernization and urbanization. Rapid changes in technology have served to shrink our globe, making communication instantaneous and travel inexpensive. And all this has been accompanied by a mass migration of both capital and labor.
The result of these transformations has been an explosion of unprecedented freedom in economic, social, cultural and political life. There is, for example, in many parts of the world, greater access to goods and services than ever before. Ideas travel the globe instantaneously, without filters or restrictions, via the internet or satellite communications. Economic and social mobility has opened up new life options for many. These are but a few of the massive changes unfolding before out eyes.
But all of this has come at a price. With these rapid changes have come unexpected consequences. Expanding freedom and mobility have created pressures on traditional culture and social life. In this new setting, the familiar has been replaced by uncertainty and insecurity.
In rapidly modernizing societies, for example, there is growing concern with the decline in social values. Traditions have been called into questions, roles are challenged, and ties that once bound societies together have been loosened.
Freedom in the former Soviet Bloc has, in some cases, exposed old rifts, giving way to civil conflict. In other instances, the transition from a Marxist to a capitalist ethic has been accompanied by a host of new social ills, unemployment, and a widening rift between economic classes.
The information revolution made possible by advances in communication technology, has also been accompanied by negative consequences. There is an information overload with too much news becoming no news at all, and too much information leading to confusion. There is also the ever-increasing danger that those who control dominant forms of media can control or direct the flow of information, turning it into a more effective means of propaganda, or exploiting it through sensationalism for crass commercial gain.
A further consequence of this explosion of freedom and the transformations it has wrought has been the emergence of varieties of fundamentalism across the globe. Facing an insecure present and an uncertain future, some have sought refuge in ideologies promising certainty and control. In these ideologies, the past has been romanticized and tradition absolutized.
Parts of Europe, for example, have witnessed the emergence of nativist and xenophobic movements. In the U.S., there is the growth of both nativism and religious fundamentalism. Parts of Latin America are experiencing what is being called “the Pink Revolution.” And in the Arab and Asian worlds, among Muslims, Hindus and others, there are emerging religious fundamentalisms with a nativist overlay.
In short, this era of great transformations presents not only new possibilities, but new dangers. What is required, as we collectively address this expansion of freedom, is a strong dose of responsibility, meaning not only a clear-headed assessment of the changes being experienced, but a discernment of the dislocations that accompany them.
It was in an effort to begin a cross-cultural examination of the need to responsibly embrace freedom that formed the basis of an important conference convened in Prague last week. It was the eleventh “Forum 2000,” organized by Vaclav Havel, leader of the Velvet Revolution and first President of the Czech Republic, and it brought together a remarkable collection of government leaders and renowned philosophers from across the globe.
The topics under discussion at this years’ forum included: Freedom and Responsibility in Politics, Law, Media, Business, and Religion; Youth and Minority Radicalization in Large Cities; Challenges for Development in Latin America; Changing Relations Between Religion and Politics; and much more.
What was remarkable about the gathering was that it happened at all. There were sober assessments of the problems we face and the germination of new ideas as to how they can be addressed. The forum demonstrated that an additional consequence of this era of transformations is our collective ability to be more self-conscious, and our growing awareness of the need to understand “the other.”
Our respective societies must not be merely driven by change, becoming victims of its unintended consequences. Our leaders must become intentional and responsible shapers of our individual and collective futures.
Dr. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute