(Also known as:
THREE CUPS OF TEA: ONE MAN'S MISSION TO FIGHT TERRORISM AND BUILD
NATIONS ONE SCHOOL AT A TIME)
by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson
(a book review by Mark R. Leeper)
THREE CUPS OF TEA is the story of Greg Mortenson, apparently as told by Mortenson to David Oliver Relin. So to begin with, who is Greg Mortenson and why should the reader be interested in his life story?
Mortenson was a nurse whose hobby was mountaineering. He attempted to climb K2, the world's second tallest and most ferocious mountain. But that is not what the book is about. He failed in his climb and nearly died. (Nearly dying seems to have become a recurrent experience of his life.) Trying to save his life his two Balti porters took him to Korphe, their isolated mountain village there in the Karakoram mountain range of northern Pakistan. Grateful for the hospitality that saved his life he promised the villagers that he would return one day and build them a school so that the children and especially the girls of the village could be educated.
A big chunk of the book is how he got funding, how he got materials, and how he built that first school, first having to build a bridge. He became a local hero and soon other villages were begging him to build schools. It was just one thing sort of leading to another. He soon became the centerpiece of the Central Asia Institute, a charitable organization founded by a rich American. Its aim is to bring education and literacy to the youth of the region and especially to the girls.
Along the way he was arrested, kidnapped, and had fatwas declared against him. He stood up to more than a few self-serving religious leaders and gangsters wanting a share of the money going to the school. His adventures make fascinating reading but even more so do his observations of local life throughout the Karakoram Mountain range.
Mortenson and Relin give us a good feel for the texture of life in Pakistan and in neighboring Afghanistan. The book is enthralling. Most of the people he meets are opposed to the power of the Wahhabis and the Taliban and their best weapon against them are the schools. The schools that Mortenson builds are an alternative to the madrassas that so often teach extremism and hatred.
Everything changed for the United States with the September 11 attacks, and this book is one of the things that changes. Late in the book Mortenson comes to the belief that the schools he is building, and more if they could be built, are an answer to terrorism. (Note the book has two subtitles indifferent editions, one aggressive and one not.) It should be only a very faint criticism of Mortenson to say that he probably does not really have the answer to terrorism. But it is the message that he is spreading in talks and in publicity for his work. And by the account in the book it seems that people are being convinced.
Why do I feel he does not really have the answer? (And here I admit I am expressing just expressing my own opinions.) First extremist Islam does not need huge numbers of recruits for its goals. Even if Mortenson won over all the people of the Karakoram, an impossible task, the extremist elements would still have no problem getting the numbers they need to wage their conflict. Consider how few people it actually took to execute the September 11 operation. How widespread a system of schools would be needed to starve the extremists of the numbers needed for such projects? Certainly more than could possibly be feasible.
That raises the question of the costs of this number of schools. Mortenson is able to build his schools at minimal costs. It is something on the order of ten to twenty thousand dollars per school. That is a bargain price, but it is still too high. The school-building project works on charitable donations. It is in competition for donations with Doctors without Borders, Oxfam, and just about every other charitable organization. Certainly in a just world there would be sufficient funds, but it is by no means clear there is. In the book we here about large spikes in the inflow of money when there is publicity for the work in magazines like Parade. The book itself is really one such plea for funding. Eventually that money will run out and he will need to get more still publicity. If Mortenson's organization is not self-sustaining it will be very limited.
The book glosses over the question of what sort of security his schools will have. The book shows over and over the power the Islamic extremists have in that part of the world. I suspect it still understates the problem. The people of the villages seem in the book to be very committed to keeping out the extremist forces. But these schools are a tempting prize for the Taliban. They are ready-built potential madrassas. The schools are too vulnerable to being taken by force and converted to the precisely the purposes that Mortenson is opposing. Mortenson and his organization will die one day, but the buildings and extremist Islam will go on. The schools are particularly tempting targets because of Mortenson's avowed (and fully-justified) mission to educate the girls. The girls certainly have never had any other opportunity for an education. But nothing makes the Islamic extremists so uncomfortable as the threat that women will become Westernized and liberated. (Consider how angry the Saudis were in the first Gulf War that American women were in the military and driving Jeeps. Saudi women's rights fall far short of the right to drive.) That belief alone on the part of the Islamists makes the Mortenson schools prime targets that will remain so long after the fickle West loses interest in them. If the Mortenson schools do not receive long-term military support from a government that has always ignored this region, the schools will eventually become more of a liability than an asset. One feels that the greatest challenges to Mortenson's program lie in the future.
Certainly there are any number of very good reasons to support the work of Greg Mortenson, but as a long-term strategy to combat terrorism it is questionable, regardless of the good the schools do in the short term. His book is an excellent view of that region of the world, a region of which we in the United States have little knowledge.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper