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From Afghanistan: Election Violence and American Bigotry

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Elections are always a time for unrest in conflict areas like Afghanistan. It's an unfortunate fact that violence ramps up as a means to deter voters and disrupt the process. The streets in Kabul are literally blanketed with hundreds of posters. Every roundabout or wall is covered and large billboards are erected haphazardly. The candidates represented in the large-scale photography chaos take enormous risks to run for office. Many are threatened with assassination to dissuade them from running at all. Three are already confirmed dead by the Taliban, and it's not just candidates that are targets.

Campaign workers also put their lives in danger. Just last week the bodies of five campaign workers were found slain in Kandahar. Candidates, election officials and voters alike will take great risks to exercise their right to run for office and vote, regardless of security concerns.

Despite the tension, I am back in Afghanistan to move several of our development projects forward while I observe the upcoming election.

Driving down the poster-strewn streets from the airport, I soon entered the 'Ring of Steel', security checkpoints that surround the city center. There are actually signs up that declare you are entering the ring, a new security 'improvement' since my last visit. Ironic, as not once was our car, a beat up Corolla, searched or stopped. I have made my own plans to minimize the increased risk in the election lead up, knowing how dangerous it will be here over the next few days.

What I hadn't accounted for was the heightened levels of violence and protests that will take place this weekend across the country, all the result of the actions of one ignorant man in Florida. The threat of a 9-11 Koran burning wasn't just ignorant from the perspective of tolerance, religious freedom, and respect. It wasn't just tasteless to take the 9-11 focus away from those who lost loved ones and turn it into a sideshow, turning a day of mourning and remembrance into a twisted Islamaphobic protest. It wasn't just dangerous to fan the fire sparking between Christians and Muslims worldwide.

It was also bigoted, reckless, and nauseating. Our country is great because of the freedoms we have. People of all religions, races and nationalities have traveled from afar to call America home because of these freedoms. This is not something anyone, of any faith, should take lightly. All beliefs deserve respect and are afforded the freedom to practice under our constitution. That's the beauty of it.

The Florida minister has the freedom to burn the Koran should he wish, as others have the freedom to destroy the Bible or Torah under the same laws. But actions have consequences. Proof in point? Another anti-American riot exploded today in Kabul in protest of his well publicized plan.

Threats degrading Islam, like Koran burning, play into the hands of the Taliban by fueling the mistaken belief that this is a war against Islam instead of a war against terrorists. Fueling this fire puts our troops and international forces further at risk.

It also puts journalists, humanitarian organizations and development aid workers at greater risk. Those like me, who choose to work in Afghanistan to help rebuild, educate and create stability get thrown into the fire as well. I watched the news before flying into Afghanistan, with growing anger about what a bigot with some media attention can do to rock an already unstable boat.

We've been here several times before. The communist-hunting of the McCarthy Trials. The Japanese internment camps in California and elsewhere. Why are we so keen to demonize entire nationalities or religions with such broad strokes? It seems to me that each time we do, we weaken our country a little more. Our strength is in our diversity, our weakness lies in our fear and racism.

As a nation built on the principles of religious freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness, we should remember that it's the melting pot that made us a vibrant leader on the world stage. As Afghanistan holds its elections this Saturday, we need to set a better example of tolerance and equality. We should hold fast to those ideals our country was founded upon that we tout as the basis for democracy in other countries.