I do not subscribe to the fashionable notion of moral equivalence between all deeply-held beliefs. I believe in the rights of the individual over the collective. I believe democracy is better than dictatorship, both morally and practically. Not necessarily democracy as we or the Americans or the French practice it, but the idea that in every possible practical way, you should let people make their own decisions, and if these decisions need to be circumscribed in any way, then you should only do it with the explicit approval of a majority of the people in question. And above all that a people must be able to change governments and leaders without resorting to force.
So my ongoing position is that I am not comfortable with a world in which there are prosperous democracies and failing dictatorships, and we are supposed not to notice because somehow it would be disrespectful of the people living under the dictatorships. I don't buy it.
The problem, of course, is that many peoples currently living under dictatorships might, if asked right now, come up with some deeply unpleasant policy decisions. They might even vote against democracy, saying they don't want it. This is the worry in many countries with an Islamic fundamentalism problem: if they can get a majority the fundamentalists are committed to democracy under the slogan "one man, one vote, just this once". That is not democracy.
Democracy needs certain conditions to get started. It is an eco-system, not a single tree, you can't just plant it and sit back in its shade. But once it is established, it is hard to uproot. People talk about democracy needing a democratic "culture", but culture is the wrong word, it makes it sound subjective. What it really needs is a universal foundation based on respect for the individual: freedom of speech, freedom of association, primacy of the rule of law, relinquishing the use of political violence, the rights of women to participate fully in economic, social and political life. It may be the case that these values are most clearly held in Northern Europe, North America and the English-speaking world. But they are not western values: they are all founded in the primacy of the rights of the individual. Where these values have had a chance to become established in other cultures, they take root. Southern and Eastern Europe, Japan and other parts of Asia, and most of Latin America.
The introduction of meaningful democracy, nurtured to the point it is self-sustaining, is the third of three "great steps" a state must take if it is to provide an environment in which people can thrive and reach their full potential. The first is they must create a legal system which is separate from their religious system. Any legal system which rests in the hands of religious leaders will inevitably be at best arbitrary and self-interested, at worst violent. The second "great step" is to separate the wealth of the nation from the wealth of its heads of state. The rule of law cannot be guaranteed by rulers who gain personally the outcomes of the laws they pass. Advanced countries have leaders, not rulers, and the head of state cannot get rich by direct taxation or by stealing from his or her people.
It is a tragedy of global proportions that the world's Arab peoples, practically without exception, live under dictatorships which have systematically impoverished their sociopolitical, cultural and economic development. A report by 30 Arab researchers on behalf of the UN Development Fund in 2002 looked at 22 Arab countries with over 280 million citizens. It found that more than 50% of Arab women are illiterate; spending on scientific research was a pitiful 0.4% of GDP; 0.5% of Arabs had access to the internet; there are more books translated into Spanish each year than into Arabic in the last ten centuries; economic growth over the past decade averaged just 0.5% per annum due to lack of investment. The report also found that the Arab...