Author Greg Mortenson: Fight hatred with education

Two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greg Mortenson believes the education of Muslims, particularly the children, on the true teachings of the Koran would temper the extremist factions of militant Islam.

This soft-spoken man, who will read from and sign copies of his best-selling books Wednesday in Wichita, said schools that are part of the Central Asia Institute he co-founded teach four languages, including English and Arabic.

"We teach the kids not only how to read Arabic, but how to read, write and understand Arabic," Mortenson said. "And that really is the key to many of the extremist madrassas (Islamic religious schools), where they only learn how to read Arabic by rote, but they don't know what it means. And then they are peppered and fed with all this militant ideology and hatred and violence."

If Muslim children better understood the Koran, he believes, they would be less easily swayed toward the radicalized faction of the religion, which he says grossly distorts its message.

"In the Koran, nothing says girls can't go to school. The Koran says that the worst two sins one can commit in Islam are suicide and the killing of civilians," Mortenson said. "The first word of the revelation to Mohammed, who is their prophet, is the Arabic word Iqra, and Iqra means 'read.' It implores all people to go out and seek the truth. It's basically, 'Go out and get an education.' "

Mortenson said many Muslims believe their religion has been "hijacked" by the radicals who blow up buildings, commit suicide attacks and kill innocent people, all in the name of Allah.

"The real enemy we all face ... is ignorance, and ignorance breeds hatred," he said. "To overcome ignorance, we have to have tolerance and compassion. But most of all, I think it's about education."

Mortenson was raised Lutheran and grew up in Tanzania, where his parents taught school and later helped establish a hospital. Mortenson, who at one time worked as an Army medic and a registered nurse, is also known as "Dr. Greg" to many of his Muslim friends because of his medical expertise.

He gets angry about anti-Islamic sentiment such as that surrounding plans to build a mosque near ground zero in New York City.

"Sometimes you hear Christian or Jewish or Muslim leaders says something like 'God is on our side,' " Mortenson said. "I think if God is on anybody's side, then God is on the side of the refugees and orphans and widows and our 74,000 wounded veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan who aren't getting the help they deserve. There are also 120 million children in the world today not in school and illiterate because of religious extremism or slavery. I don't think anybody has the right to say 'God is on our side' until those people are really our priority."

"Three Cups of Tea," the book co-authored by Mortenson and journalist David Oliver Relin about Mortenson's mission to build schools in Central Asia, is not only an international best-seller, but also on the reading list for senior U.S. military commanders and forces deploying to Afghanistan.

Mortenson also has written a follow-up book called "Stones Into Schools," and a children's book called "Listen to the Wind."

A recent New York Times article called Mortenson an "unlikely tutor" as Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Afghan war commander Gen. David Petraeus have looked to Mortenson to help them understand the complex situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mortenson was fairly critical of the military after the Sept. 11 attacks because of what he called the "laptop warriors" in the Pentagon. He said they relied too much on technology and smart bombs to fight the war, instead of learning about the culture, building relationships and really listening to provincial leaders, or "elders," as Mortenson refers to them.

Mortenson sees more of that happening now in the military and applauds the strategy, but doesn't think the military can do it all.

"I also think it's very unrealistic that the American public and maybe the media — but mostly our leaders — expect the military to solve all our problems over there. Today's soldier has to be a warrior and a diplomat and a humanitarian, and I think it's an unrealistic expectation."

If you go

Greg Mortenson

What: Reading and book-signing by the author of "Three Cups of Tea," "Stones Into Schools" and "Listen to the Wind"

Where: WSU Hughes Metropolitan Complex, 29th North and Oliver

When: 7 p.m. Wed.

How much: Tickets $10, or free with the purchase of a paperback copy of "Stones Into Schools" from Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas. Information, 316-682-1181.