Three Cups of Trouble: Climber Greg Mortenson’s Taliban Problem
Text by Cliff Ransom
This summer Greg Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea, will hit 125 weeks on the best seller list. The tale of a K2 climber who started building schools in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and its message that only education can combat the ignorance that fosters religious extremism, has inspired more than three million readers. But in recent months, Taliban insurgents have battled feverishly with the Pakistani government in a bid to overrun a sizable portion of the country. This begs the inevitable question: What happens when these same gun-toting extremists show up at Mortenson’s schools?
The answer, as with most things in Pakistan, is complex. Most of Mortenson’s 50 or so Pakistani schools are located in the remote valleys of the Karakoram mountains, areas traditionally free from militant Islam. The recent battles against the Taliban in the Swat Valley are more than 150 very rough miles to the west. So his schools are safe—for now.
But a storm is gathering. In recent years, Islamic schools, or madrassas, run by anti-Western Sunni extremists have multiplied at an alarming rate. “In 2001 there were about 12,000 madrassas,” says Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, one of the foremost authorities on the Taliban. “In 2008 there were about 18,000.” These schools often operate as recruiting tools for militant groups, and they have expanded into every corner of the country. According to David Oliver Relin, the coauthor of Three Cups of Tea, “When I was last in Pakistan five years ago, extremist madrassas were popping up in the same area as Greg’s schools. Even in Skardu [the closest town to K2], which used to be a laid-back climbing outpost, there’s now a big, ultraconservative mosque.”
For Mortenson, the situation is so sensitive that he politely declined to be interviewed, citing security concerns. Yet his influence remains as strong as ever. Recently he was awarded
the Star of Pakistan, the nation’s highest civil honor, and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. And Pakistanis are taking note.
“Before Greg, there were very few local organizations willing to set up schools,” Rashid says. “But he shamed them into it.” Newly formed Pakistani NGOs have started to tackle the immense task of reviving the state school system, a significant step in beating back extremist madrassas. For now, Mortenson continues his work undaunted, taking comfort in the words of the Prophet Muhammad: “The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr.”