Japan has done it. South Korea has done it. China may yet do it. A society with a long cultural tradition that has become stuck in old ways or that has become corrupted and lost its internal drive can only escape by defining its own modernity. Yes, there are major flaws in each of those I've cited: Japan went the extremely bad path of adventurous militarism in the first half the the twentieth century, and even today has an excessively strong work ethic to the detriment of quality of life. China is still far from a modern society in truly embracing the universal values of freedom of speech, freedom of association and accountable government.
In much of Africa, defining modernity remains elusive because much of Africa is still caught up in a victim psychosis, something South African activist Steve Biko identified in the 1970s as a critical problem. In his Black Consciousness movement, a critical element of their politics was building self esteem, including excluding White liberals from decision-making. The theory was not racially based, but rather aimed to liberate disadvantaged Black South Africans from the thinking that their plight was out of their control.
Today in the Middle East and North Africa, a transformation is under way that looks like defining a new modernity for the region. As I was formulating the thoughts that went into this article, I was pleased to encounter this TED talk by Wadah Khanfar, director-general of Al Jazeera. Much of what he says exactly echoes my thoughts on the subject.
What has made all this possible? Very much as in the 1976 Soweto uprising, young people who have not had the experience of their elders of being cowed by a police state have taken to the streets to demand their freedom. Sadly, in 1976, the Biko spirit was stilled before his organization had grown to critical mass. Biko himself was murdered by the apartheid regime in 1977, and many of his supporters gravitated to the ANC, as the only major organization in exile with any capacity to fight back – limited though that was. In the process, many of his core ideas were lost, not least the need to break free from the past. Today, much of the problem South Africa has in growing as a society arises from failures to transcend the apartheid past. Many Black people justifiably still feel they are victims but that feeling is not an empowering feeling, rather it is one that easily gives way to despair and disillusionment when facing intractable problems.
So where next for the Arab revolution? A key thing that is different this time around is that a tool for mass mobilisation exists that didn't exist in apartheid South Africa: social networks. The nearest analog I can think of for what is happening now is the early stages of the rejection of Robert Mugabe, when text messages were used to spread the word that he wasn't as popular as most people thought. The upshot of this was that he lost a referendum on a new constitution in February 2000, which would have entitled him to redistribute land without compensation. This did not amount to regime change, and gave Mugabe the space to organize against opposition before the next election, which he nonetheless only won by extensive fraud.
Where the Arab revolution differs is that it has effected regime change in sufficient countries to make a difference, and the tools of mass mobilisation will not be closed down easily in those countries. Already in Egypt, the prime minister appointed after the military takeover has been forced to step down. Libya is possibly the most difficult case, with plenty of evidence that the Gaddafi regime will kill as many people as it takes to cling to power.
The exact form the Arab modernity will take is yet to be determined. I would like to bet it will not include slavish copying of external cultures, nor will it include a regressive interpretation of Islam. Universal values are at the core of the change that is now sweeping the Arab world, and those universal values are being interpreted by ordinary people – not being imposed from outside. That is important, because democracy is not a piece of paper. No matter how good a constitution you have if the population as a whole is unwilling to or afraid of demanding their rights, it is only a piece of paper.