Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

America gets to know the Muslim world

Ever since I finished reading Three Cups of Tea, I’ve observed happenings in Pakistan with a watchful eye. The irony of that watchfulness is that the life’s work of the book's author, Greg Mortensen, is to use education to counter ignorance in South Asia, but by acquainting Americans with the people of Pakistan through his book, he is also countering some of our own ignorance of the Muslim world.

By learning a little bit about Pakistan, I now feel a thin connection to it. In other words, I now care, and caring means wishing the best for Pakistanis.

With his trip to the Middle East this week, President Obama is performing the same kind of diplomacy as Mortensen. Although Obama went to the region in order to strengthen America’s relationship with the Muslim world, he is also trying to help Americans understand a people that have been demonized by our media and the Bush administration. As Obama told listeners at his speech at Cairo University today:
And I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.
Obama went on to list the contributions of Islam to human civilization and Muslims' contributions to American society.
As a student of history, I also know civilization's debt to Islam. It was Islam -- at places like Al-Azhar -- that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment.
In the early '90s, after losing his way while climbing the world’s second largest mountain, Greg Mortensen was nursed back to health by villagers in a remote Pakistani mountain village. Mortensen formed a tight connection with his caretakers, and seeing that the village children were studying outdoors on the cold ground, he pledged to build them a school.

Since that first school was built thirteen years ago, Mortensen has built seventy-eight more, educating 33,000 children. Through building schools, he has come to the conclusion that ignorance is the real source of terrorism. Ignorance allows the seeds of hatred and fear to grow and flourish. It allows people to remain in poverty with no hope for a better future. As Mortensen said:
If you fight terrorism, that’s based in fear. But if you promote peace, that’s based in hope. And the real enemy I think is ignorance. It’s ignorance that breeds hatred.
When Obama and Mortensen make connections with Muslims overseas, they help to create a positive, more accurate image of America in Muslim minds. When Americans read Mortensen’s book, they meet admirable Muslims who want the best for their children, and ambitious girls whose education takes them to new places.

Mortensen drinks a river of tea whenever he is among Pakistanis. Describing how tea drinking is a metaphor for building relationships, Mortensen says:
With three cups of tea … the first cup you’re a stranger, second cup a friend, and the third cup you become family. That doesn’t mean you just go around drinking tea, having peace in the world. But what it means is that first we have to build relationships and get to know each other.
If geographic differences make it hard to drink tea with a Pakistani, then pick up Three Cups of Tea or listen to Obama’s bridge-building speech in Cairo, Egypt today. We could all use a little education.


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