Every once and a while I come across something that opens a new window to my understanding. Such was the case recently when I read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. For years I have lamented that we who call ourselves peace activists have not really put forth any clear proposals as to how to address the reality of terrorism in our violent world as an alternative to the single-minded military response that has characterized U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been against war because we know it only creates the conditions that cause innocent people to suffer (called “collateral damage” by the military) and provides justification for a violent response by U.S. enemies. Yet, I have not been able to see any constructive, positive proposals that can combat terrorism in a peaceful way.

After reading Three Cups of Tea, I realized alternatives have been there all along, I just hadn’t been able to see them. Three Cups of Tea relates Greg Mortenson’s story of building schools in some of the most remote, mountainous areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the early 1990’s, he was nursed back to health after losing his way on a mountaineering expedition by the people of the tiny Himalayan village of Korphe. In gratitude Mortenson promised to repay their kindness by raising the money to build the village a school. After raising money, taking several years to build a bridge over a rugged moutain chasm and then a school, Mortenson discovered his calling, and began working with local village elders and Muslim leaders to build schools in some of the most remote areas of Pakistan. He learned to respect and follow the traditional Muslim ways of negotiation, and earned the trust of local people and conservative Islamic leaders, who had a deep-seated and well-deserved distrust of Westerners. Long before the bombings on September 11, 2001 Mortenson heard of Osama Bin Laden and other Saudi Arabian rebels who were stirring up people in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. On September 11, 2001 Mortenson was in Afghanistan meeting with local leaders aboaut building yet another school. While many of the commentators on the book focus on Mortenson as an individual hero, what strikes me most was how he allowed himself to become one with the people he was serving and thus a catalyst for bringing education, especially for young girls, into some of the most remote areas of the world.

The penultimate chapter of the book is entitled “The Enemy is Ignorance.” In that chapter the authors quote General Bashir Baz, a retired Pakistani military officer, who says:

“People like me are America’s best friends in the region. I’m a moderate Muslim. But watching [the US bombing of Iraq and the subsequent suffering of Iraqi civilians], even I could become a jihadi…Your President Bush has done a wonderful job of uniting one billion Muslims against America for the next two hundred years.

“Osama [bin Laden] is not a product of Pakistan or Afghanistan. He is the creation of America. Thanks to America, Osama is in every home. As a military man I know that you can never fight and win against someone who can shoot you once and then run off and hide…. You need to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. In America’s case the enemy is not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance [emphasis mine]. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever.” (p. 310)

The enemy is ignorance. That statement can be taken two ways. General Bashir said these words in order to stress the need for education in the Muslim world. But the ironic twist is that it also can mean Western ignorance of the culture and traditions of people they supposedly want to help. Stephen Covey says, “The way we see the problem is the problem.” Our problem is that we think the core issue is Osama and terrorism. What Mortenson and others like him are saying is that the core problem is our inability to see past our guns and bombs to the real need, which is a need for education and economic development.

Mortenson is not alone in his work. Syndicated columnist Trudy Rubin recently wrote about the work of Afghan activist Suraya Pakzad, who has been running girls’ schools for years amidst the rubble of the war, and Afghan businessman Aldo Maggazzeni who builds water systems in Afghan villages. Jim Wallis of Sojourners has recently called for a petition urging military de-escalation and greater investment in diplomacy and economic development. Increasingly, even military experts are recognizing the futility of trying to win over the people of Afghanistan with war. The British and the Russians failed miserably and gave rise to the Taliban. What makes the US think we can do better?

To be sure there are military dangers. The Taliban and al-Quaeda are vicious and dangerous, and do in fact terrorize people. However, if the US invested its billions in helping people like Mortenson, Pakzad and Maganezzi and used the military to protect them in their efforts, the downward spiral of violence and destruction could end.

The enemy is ignorance, starting with our own. The people of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s most remote regions need and welcome our help. Instead of barging in with guns and bombs blazing, we we need to sit down for three cups of tea to know the Afghan and Pashtun people, and allow them to know and trust us. Then, and only then peace, security, and justice will come to the region.