To fight terror, Montanan builds schools in Asia
BOZEMAN, MONT. — Greg Mortenson is waging a personal war against terrorism halfway around the world from a basement in Montana.
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.
On this early morning, though, Mortenson is torn by the thought of leaving his two young children and his wife, Tara Bishop (who grew up in a family of famed Himalayan mountaineers), for another extended trip to the region.
"The long absences from my family are painful," he says, "but when I look into the eyes of children in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I see my own children. I want my own kids and their counterparts to live in peace, but that will not happen unless we teach them alternatives to the cycle of terrorism and war."
Initially, Mortenson's benevolence in Pakistan was met with distrust from Islamic clerics who suspected Mortenson might be a spy. But Saeed Abbas Risvi, the senior Islamic Shiite spiritual leader in northern Pakistan, rose to his defense after the outsider delivered on his schoolbuilding promises. Knowing that Mortenson could encounter danger in rural villages, Risvi, now a close friend of Mortenson, contacted the Supreme Council of Ayatollahs in Iran to obtain a rare letter of recommendation for the American.
"In Pakistan and Afghanistan, people don't believe in 30-minute power lunches to do business. Rather, it takes three cups of tea over many months to cultivate a lasting relationship," Mortenson says. "When you have your first cup, you are strangers. After the second cup, you become friends, and after the third, you're regarded as family."
Over a crackling telephone line to Mortenson's office, cleric Risvi says the "American gentle giant" has earned respect because he listens to the desires of local people. Risvi says that despite the violent interpretations of the Taliban, who repressed women, Islam teaches equality among all. "Girls have been the most deprived of basic education in our society. Education is light, and light provides beauty and strength to the people."
Compared to traditional relief organizations that often have a religious bent and a large support staff, Central Asia Institute consists only of Mortenson - who pays himself a modest salary of $39,000 - and one office assistant.
"Putting between $5,000 and $15,000 in [Mortenson's] hands buys you a lot," says Silicon Valley venture capitalist George McCown, who has seen several of Mortenson's 150 community projects. To Mr. McCown, Mortenson's approach of improving young people's lives is the most sensible way to leaven the region. "He's one of the few who has figured out how to promote community development very efficiently ... and ... he's changing negative perceptions of Americans," McCown says.
Even so, Mortenson's philanthropic work has attracted a few critics in this country. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he received several angry letters. "You will pay dearly for being a traitor," wrote one woman in a letter postmarked in Minneapolis. Stated another letter from Denver: "I wish some of our bombs had hit you because you're counter productive to our military efforts in Afghanistan."
Mortenson, however, remains undeterred, though he hopes that a military invasion of Iraq will not fan more antiAmerican sentiment in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Ignorance breeds hatred," he says before sunrise, trying to phone Afghanistan. "We can spend billions [of dollars] amassing a wall around America, but unless we invest even a small fraction of that amount building bridges of peace and understanding, all our efforts will be in vain."