By Ali A.
Different readers must have read this book with varied emphasis and with different take-away lessons. The variation in their readings was probably informed by their educational, professional, geographic, ethnic and national backgrounds, also their knowledge of the Pak and Afghan regions and cultures, and, furthermore, their understanding of current American involvement in these regions, its motives and history.
But, not all readings of that book are equal and not all facts and lessons from that book are worth taking. No doubt the book presents a remarkable story of courage and compassion. The point is not to question those values. It is to scrutinize the ideas (and solution) of ‘development’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’ offered in this book. A particularly useful way to approach this is to contextualize and question the underlying normative assumptions and politics of the book’s narrative against the backdrop of American hegemonic expansionism.
This critical examination is important. Because it is relevant to how our humanitarian activists, policy makers, and general concerned audience including you and I, understand those regions and peoples. It is also relevant for the kind of measures we adopt for ‘solving’ the regions’ problems, deciding what is the ‘right’ thing to do, who should do it, and how.
Questioning Humanitarian Intervention
First, the book never questions the idea of “humanitarian” intervention by an imperial power like the US, but only debates the method of such an intervention: That any such military intervention should be accompanied by humanitarian reconstruction efforts, which supposedly would be good for the local people and for long lasting American security interests. No reflection on Washington’s past record of military interventions and its outcomes is presented, and no appraisal of US motives and geo-strategic interests in the region. The question should be asked first: What gives a country – especially a country like the US with a terrible track record of militarism and human rights violation – the right to violate sovereignty of other countries in the name of ‘spreading democracy’ and ‘humanitarian interventions’?
Further, in explaining the cause of extremism and ‘terror’, the book conveniently mutes the messy political history of the region. Perhaps because that history would point to the pivotal role that CIA, ISI, and Saudis played in creating the menace of terrorism and extremism in the first place. What should not be forgotten is that the Cold War was not fought in America or Europe but in regions like Pakistan and Afghanistan which are still paying the price of that war. But, the continuing presence and politics of regional and global powers receives no attention in the book. Instead, the roots of the problem are smoothly traced back to ‘internal’ issues: the problem with competing interpretations of Islam and with local socio-economic and cultural conditions. The silence on the role of ‘external’ factors which funded and nurtured extremism then allows this narrative to present ‘our’ involvement as only humanitarian and benevolent: ‘we have nothing to do with their mess, we only want to help them fix it because we are able to do it and therefore we should do it with good faith’.
False Sense of Self-Righteousness
As the book pampers the blissful ignorance of Americans of the imperial and exploitative policies of their government, it appeals to – and reinforces – a false sense of self-righteous philanthropy in them. However, not philanthropy but social justice should be the idiom of American interaction with the rest of the world. The difference the second perspective makes is huge, because it induces an attitude of humility and guilt as it induces a critical awareness of politics. What Americans need to understand is that their affluence, luxury, extravagant “way of life”, ignorance, and apathy are all directly linked to wars and exploitation of people and resources by their government in other parts of the world (and in their own country too). And each American, especially those directly benefiting from the imperial exploitations, is morally responsible for the actions of their government. They owe it to the oppressed people. And the place to start is to put a stop on their government’s military adventurism as well as economic and cultural exploitations in other parts of the world.
Further, before they could help other people, they should seriously reflect on their own biases and normative assumptions. The narrative in “Three Cups of Tea” never seriously reflects on how colonial-istic and problematic it is to try ‘changing cultures’ of other people through what ‘We’ consider to be the ‘right’ thing to do, through military means or soft humanitarian interventions. To save those people, to civilize them, to help them progress, is this not ‘white man’s burden’ in a new guise? A liberal imperialism of sorts? “Three Cups of Tea” mentions in the passing another book “Ancient Futures” but never really connects the moral of that book to its own overriding message, especially the message presented in its second half. From the brief mention of that book in “Three Cups of Tea”, “Ancient Futures” appears to suggest that there can be multiple ways to be modern, and people do not necessarily need to follow the West-European or American route to becoming modern. In fact, their definition of ‘progress’ and ‘modern’ may be very different from ‘ours’. This moral lesson that was shared in “Three Cups of Tea” was helpful, but it did not have any significant impact on its own grand narrative or message, which remained couched in the trope of “tradition vs. modern”, “conservative vs. progressive”, “fundamentalist vs. tolerant”. At various point in the book one notices that the farther one gets from one’s tradition and ‘conservativeness’ and becomes like ‘us’ in thoughts and actions, the more “modern” one becomes. Such measures of ‘progress’ and ‘achievement’ become especially apparent in the aspirations and changes reflected in the characters of Jahan and Tahira by the author-s.
School Building, Yes, But What Curriculum?
The contention here is not about building schools or providing other welfare services to people. But about the kind of education being given, imparted with what assumptions and at what cost. From my experience in the Gilgit-Baltistan region so far and observing the outcomes of some welfare projects being run under similar organization, including Aga Khan, I have observed some striking patterns. I wonder what kind of ‘development’ is this that detaches children from their roots and land, makes them lose their identity and self-worth? And what kind of ‘progress’ is this that is defined primarily in material terms, individual and community, but without consideration for values and tradition, and for social justice and environment. It’s one thing to adopt boiling practice for drinking water but quite another to start considering your traditional dress as dirty and backward. The character of Jahan in the book also illustrates this problem.
Simply constructing schools is not the solution. But we would have to look into – and design our own curriculum and teachers training programs – what kinds of identities are being constructed in the process, what role models are being presented, what is the outlook of the world and sense of purpose that are being imparted, and what tastes, desires and values are being constructed through school curriculum. We need to ask similar questions about other development projects: what cost to people, culture, and environment?
Apart from problem with the normative assumptions in the book, there are gross misrepresentations that need thorough scrutiny. That includes elements of fictions in the book. For example, as Nosheen Ali points out in a footnote, “Mortenson could not have attended Mother Teresa’s funeral in Spring 2000 (pp 233-235) because she died in Autumn 1997″.
I also have serious doubts about his kidnap episode in Waziristan. Those familiar with the geography of the region know very well that the Northern Areas of Pakistan (Gilgit-Baltistan) are miles apart from Peshawar and the FATA areas (where Waziristan is), and it makes little practical sense to expand the project to that far-away region when Mortenson had not even completed his first school in Korphe, Baltistan. On the same note, the November 1979 issue of Time Magazine, covering Iran hostage crisis, through which the co-author, David Relin, constructed an emotion-filled, deeply touching narrative of fear and hope in that episode may have been quite inspiring to readers, but it is very unlikely for that English language, 15 years old issue, with a “garish painting of a scowling Ayatollah Khomeini” on the cover to be found in a cell located somewhere in Waziristan. The whole episode is filled with holes that were never satisfactorily addressed, leaving too many doubts. (One can similarly question his excursions into Afghanistan immediately after the fall of the Taliban regime and until the publication of the book.)
That episode, however, was critical to collapse starkly different geographies and cultures into each other to frame this story within combating “terrorism” discourse. Nosheen Ali’s exposition is quite elaborate on this point. She also hints that perhaps that was intentional on the part of the author-s and publishers to make their story more marketable. They perhaps wanted to engage with the current war-on-terror discourse seriously and sincerely – but evidently uncritically and un-self-reflectively – through their own liberal/humanist modernization solution – that of ‘ignorance and backwardness are the root cause of terror in the Muslim world’.
On problems with such humanist interventions, their underlying assumptions and politics, see:
Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?
Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: Cracking the Media Code
Ali, Nosheen. 2010. “Books vs Bombs? Humanitarian development and the narrative of terror in Northern Pakistan”, Third World Quarterly, 31: 4, 541 — 559