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To fight terror, Montanan builds schools in Asia

By Todd WilkinsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 21, 2003


Greg Mortenson is waging a personal war against terrorism halfway around the world from a basement in Montana.

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But he doesn't use guns or bombs; his tools are pencils.

It's 4 a.m. and Mr. Mortenson is sitting in his dimly lit office, surrounded by books on Asian history, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda. Soon a fax arrives in Urdu. Later, Mortenson, a stout, soft-spoken mountaineer, is speaking on a staticky line with a Shiite cleric in northern Pakistan.

His mission: To help set up schools for young Muslims - mainly girls - in a remote part of the world where the United States is often despised.

Mortenson admits that rural Montana is an odd place for a humanitarian base camp. But, as he arranges his next flight to Islamabad, geographical distance is the least of his obstacles. Given a potential US invasion of Iraq and resistance at home from critics who condemn his enigmatic crusade, he is concerned about bridging the growing gulf between America and the Muslim world.

"I believe we've reached a pivotal moment in world history, and it's the choices we make now that will define us," says Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute here. "Mahatma Gandhi said you can not shake hands with a closed fist. To fight terrorism with only war and not compassion is futile."

Since 1993, he has helped build dozens of schools for Muslim girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Working with Islamic mullahs and village chieftains, he plans to put up many more in the months ahead.

Though not wealthy himself, Mortenson raises money tirelessly to support his cause. In the process, he has earned the respect of many politicians and business leaders alike. Rep. Mary Bono (R) of California, calls herself a "cheerleader" for Mortenson's methods. She says the Central Asia Institute shows how fresh alternatives to US foreign aid can reach the ground faster and achieve results at a fraction of the cost of traditional programs.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D) of North Dakota, who visited Afghanistan a year ago, is another admirer. "Educating girls is one of the most effective means of promoting economic growth," he says.

The genesis of Mortenson's crusade was improbable in itself. It stems from a failed attempt to scale the summit of Pakistan's famed K2 in the Karakorum range a decade ago. Forced to abandon the punishing ascent by physical exhaustion, Mortenson was nursed back to health by Islamic mountain dwellers in Korphe, a remote outpost in the unforgiving terrain.

For decades, Western climbers have visited the region on expensive outdoor adventures - often tapping local people as cheap labor to haul their gear - but few gave anything back.

To repay the villagers' kindness, Mortenson asked the local mullah what he could do, and discovered that one of every three infants in the region dies before reaching its first birthday. Furthermore, the literacy rate is less than three percent; among women it is one-tenth of one percent.

Mortenson returned to the US, sold all of his worldly possessions to underwrite projects in Korphe, and has been on a fundraising quest ever since. Every year, the son of former Lutheran missionaries spends at least five months in the Karakorum, compiling a list of requests for more than 60 schools.