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Bush: Islam Not Threatened by Spread of Democracy and Women's Rights in Middle East, S. Asia - 2004-03-12

President Bush says the spread of democracy and women's rights in the Middle East do not threaten Islam. Mr. Bush met with Afghan and Iraqi women at a White House conference on promoting women's rights.

President Bush says he is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East that he says is beginning to improve women's rights.

Since Mr. Bush took office, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have freed 50 million people from what the White House calls two of the most brutal regimes on earth. Twenty-five million women and girls are now free to go to school and vote in elections.

The president says promoting democracy in the region is a long and difficult road, but it is a priority because women's rights are best guaranteed by freedom and democracy, goals which Mr. Bush says are both consistent with Islamic teachings.

"A religion that demands individual moral accountability and encourages the encounter of the individual with God is fully compatible with the rights and responsibilities of self-government," he said.

Introducing her husband at the conference, First Lady Laura Bush said women are a vital part of shaping democracy. "Without women, the goals of democracy and peace can not be achieved. Women's rights are human rights and the work of advancing human rights is the responsibility of all humanity," he said.

If people are not free, President Bush says it is likely that women will be suppressed as human rights are defined by a constitution, defended by the impartial rule of law and secured by a pluralistic society.

He says the advance of women's rights and the advance of liberty are ultimately inseparable, and he will continue to work for those who are still denied those rights.

"America stands with the world's oppressed peoples. We've got to speak clearly for freedom, and we will in places like Cuba or North Korea or Zimbabwe or Burma. We stand with courageous reformers," he said.

The president says there has been progress on women's rights, including Libya's release of a local government official imprisoned in 2002 for advocating free speech and democracy. Mr. Bush called that an encouraging step toward reform in Libya and hopes that more such steps will follow.

He spoke of U.S.-sponsored job and educational training for women in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush administration has pledged $10 million for the Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative along with existing programs to rehabilitate and equip 11 regional women's centers.

In Afghanistan, the administration is spending $2.5 million on 14 women's centers offering vocational training with audiovisual equipment, computers, libraries, and daycare.

Mr. Bush has also pledged an additional $50 million to combat the slavery of human trafficking, which the White House estimates involves at least 900,000 women and children each year.