Huda is an inspiring example for the whole region. And America's message to other women in the Middle East is this: You have a great deal to contribute, you should have a strong voice in leading your countries, and my Nation looks to the day when you have the rights and privileges you deserve.
Taking your place as a center of progress and achievement requires extending the reach of freedom. Expanding freedom is vital to turning temporary wealth into lasting prosperity. Free societies stimulate competition in the marketplace. Free societies give people access to the information they need to make informed and responsible decisions. And free societies give citizens the rule of law, which exposes corruption and builds confidence in the future.
Freedom is also the basis for a democratic system of government, which is the only fair and just ordering of society and the only way to guarantee the God-given rights of all people. Democracies do not all take the same shape: they develop at different speeds and in different ways, and they reflect the unique cultures and traditions of their people. There are skeptics about democracy in this part of the world. But as more people in the Middle East gain firsthand experience with freedom, many of the arguments against democracy are being discredited.
For example, some say that democracy is a Western value that America seeks to impose on unwilling citizens. This is a condescending form of moral relativism. The truth is that freedom is a universal right - the Almighty's gift to every man, woman, and child. And as we have seen time and time again, when people are allowed to make a choice between freedom and the alternative, they choose freedom. In Afghanistan , 8 million people defied terrorist threats to vote for a democratic President. In Iraq , 12 million people waved ink-stained fingers to celebrate the first democratic election in decades. And in a recent survey of the Muslim world, there was overwhelming support for one of the central tenets of democracy, freedom of speech: 99 percent in Lebanon , 94 percent here in Egypt , and 92 percent in Iran .
There are people who claim that democracy is incompatible with Islam. But the truth is that democracies, by definition, make a place for people of religious belief. America is one of the world's leading democracies - and we are also one of the most religious nations in the world. More than three- quarters of our citizens believe in a higher power. Millions worship every week and pray every day. And they do so without fear of reprisal from the state. In our democracy, we would never punish a person for owning a Koran. And we would never issue a death sentence to someone for converting to Islam. Democracy does not threaten Islam or any other religion. Democracy is the only system of government that guarantees their protection.
Some say any state that holds an election is a democracy. But true democracy requires vigorous political parties allowed to engage in free and lively debate. True democracy requires the establishment of civic institutions that ensure an election's legitimacy and hold leaders accountable. And true democracy requires competitive elections in which opposition candidates are allowed to campaign without fear or intimidation.
Too often in the Middle East , politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail. America is deeply concerned about the plight of political prisoners in this region, as well as democratic activists who are intimidated or repressed, newspapers and civil society organizations that are shut down, and dissidents whose voices are stifled. The time has come for nations across the Middle East to abandon these practices, and treat their people with the dignity and respect they deserve. I call on all nations in this region to release their prisoners of conscience, open up their political debate, and trust their people to chart their future.