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NOW on the News with Maria Hinojosa

Transcript: Greg Mortenson on Building Schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan
March 2, 2007

» More about this interview

HINOJOSA: Welcome to our podcast. This week we're talking to Greg Mortenson, co-author of the New York Times best-selling book, Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time (PH). The book is about Greg's incredible efforts to educate young people in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Welcome to Now on the News.

MORTENSON: Good morning, Maria.

HINOJOSA: It's great to have you on the show, Greg. You know you have so many fans across the country, across the world, who think that your notion of building one school at a time in countries that are not necessarily welcoming to Americans—many people read your book and think it's life-changing. Did you ever think that you would have that kind of an impact on Americans?

MORTENSON: No, I—I just started out—I was a (UNINTEL) climber on K2 and stumbled into a village in '93. And I made a rash promise that I would help build a school. And this kinda led from there. And I—I think part of it has to do with what I call, thinking from your heart or your intuition. But I never could envision this. And I—I never realized that—(LAUGHTER) where we'd get to.

HINOJOSA: And I'm sure you never thought you would end up building more than one school over there. I wanna start Greg, by asking you the question that is—is really on the news—your response to this report that Pakistan has arrested a Taliban chief, Mullah Obi Ai Dullah (PH). He is considered a—a—a very high level of the Taliban to be arrested. When you see this kind of news about an important member of the Taliban being arrested, what goes on for you?

MORTENSON: Well Maria, I think it's great. And you know, given all the resources and money and everything we—we spend into capturing or killing terrorists or al-Qaeda or the Taliban, that—you know it's—you know, it shows that there's some progress. Unfortunately, against the—the backdrop of that is the fact that the international community, the Pakistan Afghan government, and—and the U.S., we've really failed to—to go to the—I—I'd say the next level, and that is to provide education and—and help for the children—with—with formal or secular education and give them opportunities. And—and it's—Taliban use large swaths of rural society to recruit—foot soldiers.

For example, after 9/11 the Taliban were about 20,000 strong. And then they had about 80,000 you'd say, semi-adherents, who a lot of them deserted right after 9/11. They had trouble getting soldiers to fight the eminent intervention by the U.S. and coalition. So they went in at gunpoint to many areas, and—and they had trouble actually getting recruits from areas where there was more education, wh—as women were refusing to allow their sons to join the Taliban.

And what—what is not really known about in the West very much is the fact that under Islam, when a young man goes on jihad—you know, we think of jihad as holy war, but it—it can also be a noble quest like—going on with your education or spiritual endeavor, or it could mean also joining—joining the Taliban. So a young man has to get permission and blessings from his mother. And if he doesn't do that, it's very shameful or disgraceful.

And also under we say, real Islam, suicide is—is perhaps the ultimate sin or—or atrocity a person can commit in the killing of civilians. So if a young—young man doesn't get that permission and—and he—he becomes a shahid (PH) or martyr, it's very disgraceful or—or he—he's not gonna go to heaven as he may—might think he does. But I've been criticized for saying that. But—even if you look at the 9/11 hijackers, certainly they were educated. Some of them even had university degrees. But—nobody really went and checked their mothers, who are nearly all illiterate.

And now that's a very strong deterrent—that we had the same thing you know, here—we do in the inner cities, where you have single mothers you know, who are impoverished and less education. Their son wants to get into drugs or gangs or violence, but if she has an education, she more likely—not—you know, condone her son to go into violence. And she'll encourage him to get a job or go on with his school.

HINOJOSA: And I wanna talk to you a little bit more about how strongly you feel about educating girls and women. But before that, I'm sure that many of our listeners kind of approach this and think, "You know, my sense," they might say to themselves, "is that if we go to Pakistan, if we go to Afghanistan, any American is considered an infidel, an outsider, someone who is hated and despised." Are we wrong when we have these images? Because you go out there, and you've done this—these projects of building schools solo.

MORTENSON: Maria, I started in '93. So I'm—I'm going on 14 years. Now I have very close relationships with many people over there. And I find that by—you know, in the great majority of communities—and I'm talking about rural and impoverished communities—they definitely support education. And it's the few extremists or radicals (UNINTEL) hijacked their religion and—their faith, and are trying to you know, propagate a very violent—ideology.

And it is—it is kind of frightening—the fact that 1980, there were about 300 extremist madrasahs (PH) in Pakistan and Afghanistan. By—by—2000—there were approximately 25,000 of these madrasahs with the (UNINTEL PHRASE) of four million children. And a madras, it's—it's also important to clarify—there's a madras, which is a—a place where children learn about Islam and the Koran in every single hamlet and village in the Islamic world.

And you know, 99 percent of madrasahs are very similar to confirmation or catechism or the bar mitzvah. But there are these other extremist madrasahs, mostly funded by Wahhabi (PH) adherents. And Wahhabi is one of the—the most extreme of the four Sunni sub-sects that propagate very violent type of ideology.

And these have flourished. They take the brightest young boys from the madrasahs. They send them to Yemen and Saudi Arabia for about a decade, indoctrinate 'em into the very you know, violent, militant type of Islam, send 'em back to the village, make him the richest man. And he has—he's—required to have four wives and have a lotta children.

So if you look at that—the Wahhabi plan or—or the extremist plan, it is to—it's over about 100 year plan. And we're trying to tackle this with billions of dollars and bipartisan bickering. And we—really—really need to look at education, I think, as an alternative. Even if we could invest one percent of the money that we put to the war on terror in education, it could have profound implications.

HINOJOSA: But you know, Greg, some people might say—especially when they hear your—your—the answer that you just gave, where you now have students who are being educated in this you know, k—as you say, violent form of—of Islam, what can one school here and there actually do against a hundred year plan to confront the infidels of the West?

MORTENSON: The way I approach this—you know, I'm actually an optimist, and you know it's easy to get pessimistic or—or—what I say is you know, if you fight terror, terrorism, it's based in fear. But if you wanna promote peace, it's based in hope. And—and what we're trying to do is look at the most extreme areas—either physical isolation, areas of conflict and war, or the third is—religious extremism. And we're able to, over several years, put flourishing, thriving communities-based schools, including for the girls, in those areas.

We have 58 schools, which doesn't sound like a lot. But—if you look at where those schools are, I think it's a tremendous credit to the communities that they value education. Including in—in Taliban strongholds, we have schools that—have girls coming to school.

HINOJOSA: Which is something that's really wonderful in the beginning of your book. When you have failed to—to scale the second highest peak in—in—in the world, and you're really devastated, and you get saved essentially and brought back to life by these people in this small village up in the mountains. And—and you realize that these kids have no school. And you write about their fierceness to learn. That's not necessarily how a lot of people may perceive these young kids, that there's a fierceness to be educated.

MORTENSON: Yeah, on fierceness, they don't have the distractions—no Nintendo, T.V. So these kids, they have to work quite a bit. They do manual labor in the fields and—and the household. But education for them is—is kind of like their greatest—joy in life. And—and you find there's a incredible learning curve.

They're riveted to their lessons. They take 'em home. They—they work with their parents, so we get these great results. And it's not all—Maria, it's not all perfect. Last year, two of our female teachers in Wolander Village (PH) and Charsea Valley (PH), which is the home of Hickmanteur (PH), who's also one of the most wanted Taliban. And—and he formally was a mujahideen (PH) and freedom fighter again the Soviet Union. And now he's become a—the U.S.'s most sought-out person.

Anyhow, in his—his village, two of our teachers resigned last fall. They're female. So I went to their houses. I talked to them. They said, "We'll only go back if the Commandant Doud (PH)," who you might say is the warlord of the local co—commander, "will order us back." So we went to his compound. He has daughters in school. He—he became furious. And now he's posted six of his militia at the school and said that if anybody even looks you know, cross-eyed at those two teachers, or—or says anything to them, that—that their orders are to shoot them. So that's not n—normally how we operate. But—(LAUGHTER)

HINOJOSA: But you know, the interesting thing, Greg, is that you talk so much about a sense of hope and positivity (PH) and trying to find these human connections. The reality is that many of these people call you an infidel. You've had fatwas (PH) put out against you. It's not as if there is a sense of open arms to what you're doing.

MORTENSON: What the fatwa was and the—the hate is coming from a few of the despot mullahs. And these are in rural illiterate society. And they control that society with their l—they're often the only literate person. Or they have some education. And they do not want education in their areas because it'll empower the people.

And furthermore, they're even more antagonistic towards girls going to school because they do know that if—if the girls have an education, when they become a mother, then they've pretty much lost their—(UNINTEL) of their power. And often it's about—more about money (UNINTEL) Islam. In many areas, for each young boy that goes to a madras, the local mullah gets say, $50 to $80 per year, which—which is a lotta money. It's probably you know, like $5000 here in the States.

And when you put in a school, often many of the kids—including the boys and girls—will go to the school. And an example, that is in Pakistan in January 2004, there were eight girls' schools bombed in Tangir Valley (PH), which is a very tribal, isolated area. And it was in response to Musharraf (PH) putting in several new schools in the Valley the year before.

But what really happened was the fact that the madras enrollment dropped from about 500 down to about 80 students in one year. Most of the boys started going to school. And so the mullahs paid some Taliban to go and—and destroy those schools.

HINOJOSA: So you have clearly faced resistance, even violence, in the projects that you're doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But after 9/11, you also received death threats from your fellow Americans who said, "How dare you go and try to educate Muslim children?"

MORTENSON: I was in Pakistan and Afghanistan from August until October 2001. And I decided to stay. The U.S.—other than journalists and—and some—a few humanitarian aides—most of the people left the country. And everywhere I went—you know like a—widow named Hawah (PH) brought me five eggs to bring to widows in New York. And I was really touched by what I saw.

And when I came back to States, it was Halloween—Day, 2001. Went to my—my little office in the basement. I start opening up my mail. And I start getting hate mail. And subsequently I start getting death threats. And even now with the book out, I've—we've been getting—very threatening e-mails and some phone calls.

HINOJOSA: What is the greatest misconception that we Americans have gotten because of the reporting? What is the reporting missing that we need to know?

MORTENSON: The good facts. In Afghanistan today—and I've been in about 60 cities, Maria, in the last year, talking to—you know, thousands of people. And I ask the same question. "How many of you know that in Afghanistan today there are 4.2 million children going to school, and during the Taliban time there were 800,000 kids going to school?" And—and so far, you know I'm probably talking maybe 30,000 people, not one hand has come up.

You know, that America's not aware of that. And you know, that may be what you say is a counter to those four million children in madrasahs. And—and obviously, it—it's only a drop in a bucket. But that is, to me, very positive news. And it's probably the most hopeful news that I could try to convey to the American public.

HINOJOSA: Greg, are you hopeful at this point? Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?

MORTENSON: I do. And it's—but it's a tunnel. And Maria, it's—I—I unfortunately think it's gonna get worse before it gets better. But I do think that you know, those four million children now in Afghanistan and—and in Pakistan, and that's where the real hope is. And—and that's another decade or two down the road. And I'm hopeful, because you know, I have two children. And when I look into the eyes of my children, I see the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And—and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to you know, live—leave them a legacy of peace. And—

HINOJOSA: Thank you so much for joining us on Now on the News.

MORTENSON: Thank you, Maria.

HINOJOSA: Greg Mortenson is co-author of the New York Times best-seller, Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time. For more information about Greg's work, you can visit our website at Thanks again for speaking with us, Greg.

MORTENSON: Thanks, Maria.

HINOJOSA: I'm Maria Hinojosa. We'll talk to you again next week.

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