Saturday, January 27, 2007

The word "hero" is perhaps one of the most over-used words in our language. It's used so much that it has been stripped of the depth of its meaning.

I don't use it too often, but I must apply it to Greg Mortenson, the activist whom I interviewed recently. This guy has done something remarkable: without government aid or intervention, he has built over 50 schools in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan to educate primarily girls.

Educated women in these cultures make a huge positive difference in them.

Pick up his book or log onto his web site to see if he's coming to your area.

For most Americans, the remote sections of northern Afghanistan and Pakistan have been described in the shorthand of the national press as little more than the breeding ground of the Taliban and the hiding place of Osama Bin Laden.

For Greg Mortenson, though, these areas are filled with the promise of lasting change through his effort to build schools in remote villages.

Mortenson's story is told in the book "Three Cups of Tea," a "New York Times" bestseller in hardcover in 2005 that has just been released in paperback. Mortenson will be speaking at the Alumnae Library Theater at Elms College on Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. The event is free.

Mortenson spoke to Reminder Publications from his home in Montana last week. He is embarking on a national book tour which he hopes which raise money and consciousness for his effort.

In 1993, Mortenson attempted to climb K2, the world's second largest mountain. He wasn't successful and was saved by the residents of a remote northern Pakistani village. In exchange for their kindness, he promised to build the village a school.

With the financial assistance of the late semi-conductor developer Jean Hoerni, Mortenson was able to build his first school in 1996. Mortenson's Central Asia Institute then set out to build more schools.

Today, over 24,000 children with an emphasis on girls attend the schools his organization have built

While encouraging literacy in the broadest sense could be easily as a noble effort, Mortenson explained how education could help prevent the growth of a new generation of terrorists and encourage the growth of democracy.

Mortenson said, that to a large degree, the people of these regions are no different that American.

"They dream the same thing we dream here," he said. "They have a fierce desire for education and a dire lack of education."

He has seen children walk three hours to reach a school, attend classes and then walk back three hours to their home. The literacy rate is only about five percent in these remote areas.

Attending school is not without risk. Thousands of girls have stopped attending school because of threats from the Taliban.

To a great extent, educating women is the key to substantial change in the region, he said. A number of international studies have shown that educating girls to a fifth grade level brings down the infant mortality rate, reduces population expansion and improves basic health.

The effects are not immediate. These changes take one to two generations to happen, he added.

Mortenson has other reasons why education, in his opinion, is a strong deterrent against terrorism.

In Islam a "jihad" is a quest. Western journalists have linked the word with terrorist activities, but Mortenson said that traditionally a jihad does not have to include those kinds of activities.

An observant Muslim man seeking to undertake a jihad must receive the permission of his mother, and Mortenson said educated mothers are far less likely to approve terrorism.

Education also means diminishing the roles of mullahs or Islamic clergy in rural areas, Mortenson explained. They are often the only literate people in a village and hold great sway over the residents.

Mortenson said that Americans have not learned too much about the region from recent history.

When Afghan freedom fighters pushed the former Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in 1989, the United States had been funding their efforts with $1 billion. After the departure of the Soviets, the U.S. aid shrank to $147 million and Mortenson said the country "went into chaos" with conflicts between rival warlords and the rise of the Taliban.

When Osama Bin Laden came to Afghanistan in 1992, he funded road and infrastructure improvements.

"He went in on a good note to win the people over," he said.

On Oct. 8, 2005, a massive earthquake devastated parts of Pakistan resulting in 74,000 deaths, 18,000 of those being children. Initially he said the Unites States had a good relief effort, but now that aid has dropped 80 percent and terrorist groups are providing humanitarian aid and recruiting young men into terrorism through "madrassas," schools run by Islamic extremists. Mortenson said the madrassas are often next to the relief tents.

Madrassas are "virtual incubators for terrorism," he said.

"We [Americans] really don't understand it," he said. "We're dealing with a well-oiled machine."

The goal of the madrassa system, he explained, is to recruit the most promising students, send them to a madrassa in Saudi Arabia where they are indoctrinated for ten years and then bring them back to the village where terrorist organizations set them up as the wealthiest person in the village, and a leader.

"This is war of ideology," Mortenson emphasized. "We are trying to counter it with education."

He said that American military personnel, especially those with two or three tours in Afghanistan, give his analysis a warm reception, but State Department officials have denied the refugee camps with the madrassas are as widespread as Mortenson says.

Mortenson notes that he has not seen another American working in these camps. Since starting his effort Mortenson has made 31 trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan and has spent 64 months there. His organization receives no federal funding and relies on private donations.

"If we really want to bring peace and stability, we have to invest in education," he said.

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© 2007 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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