April 18th, 2011
03:18 PM ET

2008 Greg Mortenson GPS interview

Here is Fareed's 2008 interview with Greg Mortenson:

Greg Mortenson: I went to K-2 in '93, spent 78 days on the mountain.

Fareed Zakaria: And K-2 is...

Mortenson: It's the world's second-highest mountain in Pakistan, on the Pakistan-Chinese border.

Coming off the mountain, it was very difficult, dangerous. Several people died that year.

I ended up walking five days, stumbling into a village. And I was weak, exhausted, emaciated. I had no...

Zakaria: At this point, you were just literally looking for someplace to sleep and eat.

Mortenson: I was so touched by their hospitality – a very poor, impoverished area. I went behind the village one day. I saw 84 children sitting in the dirt doing their school lessons with sticks in the sand.

So, when a young girl, Chocho, came up to me and asked me to help her build a school, I made a promise to help them build a school.

We figured out I'd need $12,000. I came back to the States. I had no clue how to fund raise. So, I hand-typed 580 letters to celebrities and movie stars. It took me 10 weeks. I only got one check back from Tom Brokaw. Then I...

Zakaria: For how much?

Mortenson: A hundred dollars.

And then I wrote – I sold my car. I sold my climbing gear. By spring I had only raised $2,400.

And my mother, who was a principal in an elementary school in Wisconsin, invited me to come and talk to the kids in early '94. And a young fourth grader named Jeffrey said, "I have a piggy bank at home, and I'm going to help you."

I didn't think much of it. And in six weeks they raised 62,340 pennies. So, that's what really got the ball rolling. And then adults, obviously, started responding.

I went back in '95. Six weeks later the school got built.

Zakaria: So, you built this one school. And then what happens? You go away and you think that's the end of it?

Mortenson: No. I decided in '96 to dedicate my life to mostly promoting literacy and education for girls in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. And I had seen what the lack of education can do. And being that my mother and my parents or grandparents are all educators, I made a commitment to build more schools.

And we focus on – our priority is not numbers of schools, but schools – areas where there is no education due to religious extremism, areas of conflict and war or physical isolation. And we work with the communities. They have to provide free manual labor, free land, free resources. So, we leverage to get...

Zakaria: So, they have to participate. And they have to...

Mortenson: Exactly.

Zakaria: They have to have some ownership of the process.

Mortenson: Fifty percent, basically, sweat equity and free land.

Zakaria: How many schools have you built?

Mortenson: Seventy-eight. And we're running about 40 – four dozen others, and...

Zakaria: So, tell me. You look – these are literally the areas where the Taliban is rising and is gaining strength. What's your insight into why is it that Islamic fundamentalism is growing in these areas?

Mortenson: Impoverishment, illiteracy. But also – I have studied the Holy Quran. The first word of the revelation to Muhammad the Prophet is the word "ikra." And in Arabic, ikra means read. The first two chapters implore that all people have a quest for knowledge.

I think it's important to focus on the girls. Obviously, the boys are important, too. But in Africa there's a proverb. If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community. It's often girls who are deprived of education.

Zakaria: But you see these girls, and you see these boys. Do any of them start becoming more fundamentalist, religious? I mean, when you see something like that happen, just looking at it on the ground, why does it happen? Why does a young man decide to join the Taliban?

Mortenson: Well, it doesn't take much. In areas we work, Taliban or recruiters come in. They'll give maybe $50 a year per son.

If there is no secular education, there's much more aspiration to go – they feel – they don't know really what education is, and they'll end up going into an extremist madrassa. About four million, mostly young boys, are in those schools.

And I think the real reason, I've learned is – we have four former Taliban who are now teaching in our girls' schools out of about 540 teachers.

Zakaria: And what do they – what do they say about this? Why were they in the Taliban?

Mortenson: Well, they said they didn't realize at the time – they went originally to formal school, but then they went to an extremist madrassa. And they felt that what their imam or the mullah was telling them is that the real light is through, you know, extremist, radical Islam.

Zakaria: And through violence...

Mortenson: Through violence.

But what they told me is, which I've learned recently, is that in the Holy Quran, when someone goes on jihad – and jihad can also be a noble quest – but they have to get permission blessings from their mother. If they don't do that, it's very shameful or disgraceful.

And all four of these men got out of the Taliban, because their mothers told them what they're doing is not in the name of Islam. And they were – they persuaded their son to get out of the Taliban.

And they're kind of like an ex-smoker now. They're our biggest advocates for girls' education.

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Topics: Afghanistan • GPS Show

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    There are some who asked, how much of Mortenson's bestseller "Three cups of tea" was fact and how much of it was myth. They doubted, if Mortenson really gave the money, that the sale of his book had generated, away to support the projects he spoke of in Afghanistan.

    April 18, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Reply
  2. Lee

    Liars tend to glance to the left... hmmm

    April 18, 2011 at 11:57 pm | Reply
  3. Kinjoh Mwaemi

    No Lee, they are on BOTH sides
    Please don't express partisan ideas

    April 19, 2011 at 4:01 am | Reply
  4. Jo Jo

    I would really like to see Greg come back on Fareed's show and tell his side of the story.

    April 19, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Reply
  5. shoakat zaman

    There is obvious reason for these people to join taliban and it is the US policies and not necessarily extremism. When Russians were in Afghanistan, these so called Mujahideen(Taliban) were the darlings of America and now these same people are terrorists. US will never succeed in Afghanistan like the oppressors before it. Is it not Shameful to see America spending 50 billion against someone who cannot be regarded as regular army but small groups of individuals.

    April 19, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Reply
  6. Senge Sering

    Please visit http://www.gilgitbaltistan.us to learn more about the region where Mortenson started his school projects.

    We the natives of Gilgit-Baltistan, a region of former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir do have lot of respect for him for providing education to girls in that area. The region has one of the lowest per capita incomes and one of the lowest literacy rates and without support of NGOs like CAI and AKDN, education would be a dream for the majority as more than half of the locals live below the poverty line. Since Pakistan government has failed to provide for the educational needs of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, it is people like Mortenson who became the hope for us

    April 19, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Reply
  7. Abu Darda

    Real heroes don’t write books, collect millions of dollars and toot their own horn. They go about their business day after day wanting no recognition or accolades. School teachers, fire fighters, policemen, nurses, and how about thousands of who do charity workall over the world day after day and we don’t even know their names. Don't forget this clown supports the illegal wars and occupation of a poor Country. His pedigree is that of a aggressive proselytizing missionary. There modus operandi has been very clear. First create grinding poverty either through warfare or discriminatory legislation. Then send in the missionaries with carrot and Bible. Ostensibly for helping the needy. They convince few impressionable muslims to become their recruiters and rope in the poor muslims. What possible interest can a christian missionary have in welfare of a muslim child

    April 22, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  8. kennet

    Get off it Abu, Greg has stated many times that his schools are strictly secular and government-free.. Maybe Greg fictionalized a bit in his accounting of events, but his work speaks for itself. He has provided education for many that would otherwise have nothing, thanks to the billions of dollars of foreign aid that end up either in officials' pockets or in the form of tanks and fighter jets, etc. ( Pakistanis take special note). No aid makes it out to the areas that Greg and the CAI serve. I think we can also discount John Krakauer's self serving whistle-blowing in the same light as his account of the disaster on Mt. Everest which was much more credibly countered by Anatoli Boukreev's account of events (he was actually there, unlike John). If more aid had been directed to education instead of arms, the Saudi madrases would not have sprung up all over the place, with some of them spreading the poison of violence and intolerance. Give Greg a break and listen to the grateful people he is helping.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:01 am | Reply
  9. Mac Qurashi

    Abu. If the book is written to subsidize the charity, there is nothing wrong. Greg has done a great job in the areas that are neglected by their own governments. He had always stayed away from the US goverment sponsored programs because the local mistrust them. The 60 minutes and John wanted their fewminutes of fame be undermining a the credibility of someone who is really laying the foundations for a better society. 60 minutes have been known to exgereate their claims.

    April 23, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  10. Tughral Mirza

    Greg's noble action are commendable. This is also because his parents come from educating family. I praise him to the highest degree and may he and his family get the reward of excellance in this world and enjoy best of his life and his many generations to come . Ameen. He is a born angle.

    April 23, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Reply

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