As our media coverage has been spinning from extreme to extreme regarding the potential mosque to be built two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City amidst the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, it seemed that I picked the perfect time to read Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea.”
“Three Cups of Tea” tells the story of Greg Mortenson’s humanitarian efforts to build schools for children (women in particular) in Pakistan (and later Afghanistan) so that they could become educated and active members of their societies. Mortenson was a climber that once attempted to summit K2 in Pakistan, but was unsuccessful and rescued by a porter from a nearby village known as Korphe when he became lost and delusional. The kindness he received there and the awareness of how little the people had inspired him to make a promise to the village chief (Haji Ali) to return and build a school for the children there.
As I have been reading about the potential site of the mosque, in concert with “Three Cups of Tea,” I realized that it is a very difficult subject to broach for several reasons and I felt the need to truly research both sides as I pondered the issue. Overall, I have come to understand through Mortenson’s book something I knew I already knew in the back of my mind.
The majority of Muslims in this world are not “jihadists,” nor will they ever be, and the key way to prevent Islamic extremists from recruiting is to provide a balanced education for the children of these regions.
Following the 9/11 attacks, Mortenson had the chance to speak in front of many government and military leaders in the US about the region and people from whence Osama bin Laden and his terrorists originate. Over and over again, Mortenson was able to successfully show that the best way to prevent future terrorists/jihadists/martyrs from developing is to educate the children. He explained that Islamic fundamentalists often recruit members through religious schools called “madrassas” and that the uneducated children sometimes view these schools as their only way to a better life. These “madrassas” create extremists and fundamentalists that are dangerous and non-peaceful.
In the Parade cover story that Mortenson described as the story that made his efforts famous and finally gave his organization financial solvency, Kevin Fedark wrote, “Mortenson’s approach hinges on a simple idea: that by building secular schools and helping to promote education–particularly for girls–in the world’s most volatile war zone, support for the Taliban and other extremist sects eventually will dry up.”
In fact, shortly after 9/11 and just two months before Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded, Mortenson returned to a very volatile Pakistan. In the book, Charlie Shimanski (former executive director of the American Alpine Club) compared Mortenson’s efforts to the firefighters attempting to rescue people trapped in the World Trade Center. He said, “This guy Greg quietly, doggedly heading back into a war zone to do battle with the real causes of terror is every bit as heroic as those firemen running up the stairs of the burning towers while everyone else was frantically trying to get out.”
It goes without saying that Mortenson is an incredibly passionate humanitarian who seems to understand the culture of Islam and ways to curb violent extremism in a completely different way than what I expected or understood. His book is required reading for senior US military commanders, Pentagon officers in counter-insurgency training, and Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan, according to the “Afterword” section of the book.
Upon returning to the subject of the mosque, as Americans we are not at war with Muslims at large because of what happened on 9/11. From everything I have read and come to understand, those who wish to worship and serve their community in this location are not desiring to hurt or harm those who suffered so greatly from the terrorist attacks. I am reminded of the Japanese internment camps and the way our country discriminated against an entire race out of fear and misunderstanding.But, I also understand why so many New Yorkers and Americans oppose the building of something they automatically associate with extreme pain and suffering so close to the source of this pain.
At the heart of the matter is the Constitutionally protected right to religious freedom in this country. Does it hold up only when it is comfortable and will not offend anyone else? Or only when it is a religion we believe in? These are questions that seem clear but become muddled in the light of terrorist attacks, as is highly evident in what has now become a national controversy.
I recommend that you read “Three Cups of Tea” or “Stones for Schools” (both by Mortenson) yourself and use his words to factor into your thoughts on the matter. It is an incredible book and an incredible story.