[Opinion] Three cups of sincerity

By Nosheen Ali

On April 17, the CBS investigative programme “60 minutes” revealed shocking details of alleged misconduct by Greg Mortenson, the renowned American humanitarian who builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan through his charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), and who co-authored the top-selling book Three Cups of Tea, which chronicles his life and work. The program highlighted how Mortenson fabricated key stories regarding his personal journeys in Pakistan, and how his charity has been involved in serious financial malpractice. While these are critical concerns that demand further inquiry, the real scandal is far more insidious and goes beyond Mortenson.

Three Cups of Tea is not merely about Mortenson’s humanitarianism. It is the quintessential text through which Americans are seeing one of the longest wars in US history. Primarily set in Baltistan and northern Pakistan, the text is designed to nourish western stereotypes and white knight fantasies — the region is a wild frontier filled with extremist madrassas and the Taliban, where people are waiting to be claimed and tamed by Mortenson’s schools. Because an abstract template of poverty and danger is applied to diverse locations, one gets a sense that there are mobile, multiple enemies all around in Muslim places that are self-evidently poor and ignorant, and thus potentially violent and dangerous. In a narrative that is not only distorted but plain simple dishonest, the largely peaceful, Shia-dominated region of northern Pakistan is ridiculously depicted as the birthplace of the Taliban, and the large presence of government, private and community schools in the region is completely eclipsed to create a spectre of rural ignorance. Terrorism is then conveniently reduced to this manufactured Muslim ignorance, instead of being connected to the violence of US foreign policy. By erasing the devastating consequences of US

The writer is a visiting scholar in the Centre for South Asia Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

interventionism and sensationalising American humanitarian work in the war zone, Three Cups of Tea provides a palatable and therapeutic account of the war on terror for the American public conscience.

More disturbingly, Mortenson has become deeply entrenched in the counter-insurgency projects of the US military, with some of his girls’ schools now being inaugurated by the military top command. This has helped to reinvent the image of the US military as a harbinger of humanitarian development. While Mortenson’s emphasis on books appears to be an alternative to bombs, it actually complements them by helping to justify and sugar-coat the war at home. Journalists like Thomas Friedman and Christiane Amanpour dwell on the Mortenson-military partnership as if the war has really changed and its key characteristic is girls’ education, not occupation. Let’s not forget: The discourse of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ has a long colonial history. Imperial power as the beacon of women’s empowerment and civilisation was precisely the rationale used by British and French colonisers in Egypt, India and Algeria amongst other places for explaining their occupations.

It is beyond doubt, of course, that girls need education and that CAI-created schools have been tremendously beneficial for local communities. Mortenson’s story embodies a moving account of a foreigner’s dedicated service to rural Pakistanis and has inspired many to undertake their own charitable endeavours. Yet, humanitarianism is not a license for disingenuous representation and action, and must be assessed within the larger politics that it reflects and perpetuates. What we need is an anti-colonial humanitarianism — one that acknowledges suffering as well as the relational histories that have produced it. Dr Paul Farmer’s Mountains beyond Mountains provides a fine example in this regard.

It is also striking to observe the responses to the CBS investigation. Many are gravely disappointed, of course, as Greg Mortenson is a humanitarian idol both in the US and in Pakistan. Several have been hesitant to criticise him, saying that “heroes are not saints and can make mistakes” and “mismanagement is there in all non-profits, it is ok if some CAI schools do not exist on the ground”. While my argument is beyond Mortenson’s financial practices and ghost schools either way, it is nevertheless interesting to note that such a lenient, sympathetic response would have been unimaginable if the humanitarian in question was a non-westerner. CBS has provided an initial opening. Investigations of accountability must now be made with regard to CAI’s work.

The saviour rhetoric of humanitarianism constitutes a powerful force that often claims unquestionable moral certainty and superiority, and therein lies its danger. All critiques of Greg Mortenson’s work can simply be silenced by saying, ‘he has made schools, you have not’. Hence, the bottom line for many people is that since Mortenson is doing good and making a difference in the lives of poor people, it does not really matter if there are errors in how he conducts himselfbecause the targets of his action are basically happy to have schools. That is tantamount to saying that poor people do not have feelings or a right to due process and dignity. Ghulam Parvi, a key character inThree Cups of Tea and CAI operations director in Pakistan for many years, resigned from CAI last year partly in response to the book’s blatantly false depiction of Baltistan as Taliban-central. Several of my friends from the region who are deeply grateful for Mortenson’s services are nevertheless thoroughly disappointed that he would use his platform to spread fundamental misperceptions about their region. Others are suspicious of his work with the military. If the CBS report is indeed true, then the casualness with which the director of a Pakistani think tank is portrayed as a Taliban kidnapper in Mortenson’s writings exemplifies a form of imperialist abuse that cannot be shielded under the guise of humanitarianism.

Perhaps the lesson to draw is not about sharing tea; it’s about sincerity. It’s also about self-interrogation of American interventions abroad, humanitarian or otherwise. Finally, one hopes that Greg Mortenson recovers from his ailments soon. All the people whose lives he has helped to change will undoubtedly be praying for his good health.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 20th, 2011.


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15 Responses to [Opinion] Three cups of sincerity

  1. Pingback: [Opinion] Three cups of sincerity | Tea Break

  2. Hyder Abbas says:

    Beside all above facts revealed by a talented writer, now Greg Mortenson and many more Americans, will have to be very careful citing such fake statements about a region which is inhabited by a peaceful, educated, inherited and civilized nation. The fictitious books and adventuress journeys regarding our region, Gilgit-Baltistan, should be timely countered, as a sister of our has done here. Our deeply appreciations and sincere thanks to the writer.

  3. fayeem says:

    Being a student and underage citizen of Gilgit-Baltistan i may not understand the political conspiracy behind this blaming act but it is my personal observation that to the rural areas of GB, its government showed least interest in providing them their basic needs and protecting their rights heres when CAI, and Mr.Greg gives an entery.
    “its not about sharing tea its about siincerity”
    it was the great Mr.Greg’s sincetiry to his friends who he had promised to build a school for their children in the backward area of baltistan,then when he saw so much love in the herats of local peoplehe spread his mission and it was not only his SINCERITY to the pottersand co climber and the saviours of his life that he devoted himself and his life that he been saved by them.
    it was appo a local potterwho saved his life and dealt him with care when he was injured and it wasFazil Baig who carried him on his back when he was severly injured on an expedition, he on their request tried to bring development in baltistan and upper hunza valley i.e chepursun.
    its not important to know what the journalists, economists critics sitting in AC rooms say about Greg. what is important is what the local people say, how they thank him, how they hail him.
    to comment on a situation you need to get to its level and i maybe no one to do so but would like to advise everybody who is writting about him to pay avisit to the areas mentioned in 3 cups of tea and seee what changes have been brought by CAI, then shall you get the real right to criticize.

  4. Aman Karim says:

    so should we agree with the writer who is miles away in California, or should we see the work this man has done for us which we can see with our naked eyes in our areas. For an instant, after reading this article I was completely convinced but when I thought about it, its not much different than the drawback wrtiter has mentioned in her own article. Sorry to say that you have over exaggerated the flaws in Greg’s work, i wonder if you had thoroughly studied Mortenson’s work. He has included Afghanistan, pamir plateau, GB and some parts of Ghizher in his work and regarding the terrorism issue I dont agree with you at all. You have completely misunderstood his writing about its origin or any relation with gilgit baltistan. If possible please provide the refrence , or even page number from the book, three cups of tea in which he has declared GB as the nitch of terrorism. This guy has done so much in such a brief time, admimistrative faults are in every organization, either government owned or in private sector for the last 60 years of this country’s history, why you have not mentioned about that, why not written a single line about it?

  5. Nisar Malik says:

    Rather than doing some real research and then making your case .. you chose to use other peoples “research” and talk about good and bad – right and wrong …. how about coming to these remote areas and making a difference here!

    Your article is so confused that you make very little sense … if you need to fix the American way of thinking or the western misconceptions .. dont use Gregs work as the shoulder from which to fire your gun of misdirected pontification!

    Let the law take its course and in the meantime put your intelligence to better use!

  6. well lot of drama is going on and i was not at the station as due to some personal work i had to travel to my home town but after reaching here in Izlamabad i came to know about the on going story and let me tell you none of you knows much better then me about CAI and Its operations .
    few points for those who are still in the darkness and have never donated single paisa to this organization are as under.
    Building of schools
    Personal provision of helicopter to Dr.Gregs Mortson by the President of Pakistan.
    relation with the people of Pakistan & Government of Pakistan
    relation with the Afghanistan Government
    relief operation in G&b
    provision of temporary shelters.in G&b
    Publication of the Book Three Cups Of Tee to create awareness about education in Pakistan

    the above highlights are he best available evidence if any one has any doubt in there minds but here i will ask the concerned authorities of the Pamir Times tell me about your collection of date why you brought this issue on table and the miss use of this media is a shameful and irresponsible act.

    i have been watching and observing to find what this Drama against CAI is all about ….its really very shameful act to criticize the person who is investing million of dollars in the area where if i am not wrong you and we all used to demand from the foreigners on the streets “please one rupee ” or please One pen
    if i am wrong please correct me and these are the people who visited our areas and introduced our identity in the whole world, we used to call these people “angraiz” and Dr.Gregs is also one of them who helped the people and have been helping the people of not only Gilgit and Baltistan also in Afghanistan and other countries …..we really appreciate his effort and apologizing on behalf of the people of Gilgit and Baltistan for the blander we made by blaming The CAI….lot of people might comment on this but the reality is that its none of your bussiness to interfar in some organizational matter who has never asked from you to donate a single penny for this noble cause which is to spread education ..i have gone through the Gregs article which gives us the clear picture how he is operating in Pakistan and other parts of the world
    his practical work is really admirable and here in Pakistan every one knows that better

    Wazir Gojali

    • Pamir Times says:

      Dear Wazir

      Pamir Times does not control CBS, New York Times, BBC, Guardian, FORBES and hundreds of other international media outlets who are running stories on the issue. Besides, we can also not close our eyes and sit down while our region is being discussed at the global level. What we are trying to do is to provide the local voices on the issue, including those in favor and also those in opposition!

      I think it is really immature on your part to call our neutral coverage of the issue as “shameful” and “misuse” of media.

      We have provided equal opportunities to people from both sides, including an article by Greg Mortenson himself, to express their views freely.

      If Greg Mortenson and CAI have not done any wrongs, then there is nothing to be afraid of because truth has the tradition of prevailing, notwithstanding individual’s whims and wishes or desires and insecurities.

      Hope that the above paras clarify your misconception about Pamir Times!

      regards

      Editor

  7. Dear all you may check to a link that contains parts of the book, it is better to read rather than to discuss blindly and believing an author,
    http://wp.me/P1o9z5-10
    i will be updating it with time. thanks

  8. Dear Editor,

    thanks for your kind reply let me clear your that i am not the media and communication officer or representative of CAI but freedom of media doesn’t mean that you forget what your responsibilities are being a patriotic person, but let me tell you that in absence of the CAI representatives i think no one has the right to open such debate and i know how much mature team is that is separate issue ,what is your teams members relationship with CAI team. the most embracing thing is few of your team members have given coverage to the work that CAI has been doing for the people of our area when disaster took place in G&B i think it will be better for you to create better coordination among your team to discus such issue before bringing it on the sites …i think all the practical work of CAI team better reflects what is right and what is wrong …. there are other issues to be discussed which is still under the carpet ,if there is any issue any one can meet me any time any where for other issues ……….
    it is very easy to talk and criticism rather then working practically.

    i hope the readers are mature enough to deiced what your comment reflects against me,and thanks to God who has given me the potential to face such sectarian Prejudice and human made disasters.

    best wishes for you and your team

    Wazir Karim Diwan

  9. Hussain says:

    @wazir, every one is reading you and you have got all the potential to express yourself and face the so called disaster, please take some more energy to absorb and give hear to others…PT is doing the right job and having right people, whom we should be proud of; at least look at your comments and words, which despite having vituperative tone got space on their site…in Greg Mortenson case it’s the western value which has been hurt…not Greg’s work..

  10. Let me first say who I am. My name is Shafqat Hussain and I have worked in GB for almost the past two decades, first with AKRSP (Baltistan), then with IUCN and later on as independant research and director of an NGO that does research on snow leopards. I did research in Shimshal, Karimabad and Baltistan and over the last decade and a half I have worked in some of the same villages as Mortenson has. I fully agree with Nosheen’s take on this becuase here is what I think. I also sympathise with the views of many expressed here who want to defend Mortenson, but Mortenson’s story is not really about him, rather it is about something else. The persistent scrutiny of his personal behavior hides that ‘something else’, hence even in the failure of Mortenson the person, Mortenson the ‘state project’ continues to succeed. He was the soft face of American power, supported fully by the Pentagon, who was used to win hearts and minds overseas and quelling domestic anxieties about the fairness of the war. Building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan is a worthy cause, but these are not the things that the US citizens should be focusing their attention on. Americans should read and write books about the role that the US has played in the region, particularly since the 1980s, such as their sponsoring the production of radical text books that preached fundamentalism to the ‘Jihadis’ whose daughters Mortenson is trying to educate. Please see the link:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A5339-2002Mar22?language=printer

    Unless American public understands this history, we may bring down Mortenson the person but not Mortenson the project.

  11. Wazir Karim says:

    Dear Participents

    thanks you all for all the comments, i beleive in practical work rather in commenting on sites besides this i have others works to do,but i will surely go through your comments and i would praise if you come up with your owan goood name ….as far as my words are concrned i am still at the middle of the cliff not on the top ……

    again i will apeal you all if any one has to say any thing com up with your own name which is the best norm to talk,
    thanks Mr Hussain for dipicting me in this debate, i appriciate further comments with your own Good name
    my full name again i will communicate Mr Wazir Karim Diwan

    i will no more be on this site you people may carry on your participation for what you say a noble cause,

    regards

  12. Rehmat Raheem Sherazi says:

    Dear nosheen,
    i believe that you are a researcher and your contributition in evironementel reaserch is highly appreciated.but i would like to say about somthing on the book of Georg Mortenson a fmous mountaineer and good friend of GB,has done many works for the developement of skardo.he has mentioned many thing in his book, ”Three Cups of Tea”.
    i hope you will read more about mortenson and give your best idea and also share with pamirtimes.
    i cant blam on you because you were one of the researcher,who has more knoledge about the tradition of GB and also about the development and doner agencies.

    thaks,

    regard
    raheem

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