Revelations by CBS News that Greg Mortenson, the American mountaineer and philanthropist, has fabricated parts of his two best-selling books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into School, have set off a media storm. Predictably this news has polarised some Pakistanis into two diametrically opposite positions: those who wholeheartedly believe in his innocence and others who have already concluded beyond doubt that he should not be trusted.
I first read Three Cups of Tea in the summer of 2007; admittedly, I thought it was one of the most touching books I have read, particularly so because it was a tale of rare heroism in a country so dear to me. I was truly impressed by the story of Mortenson’s rescue from K2 and how the generosity of an indigenous person not only saved his life but also led to a remarkable effort on Mortenson’s part to build schools in a hitherto little known area of Pakistan. My feelings at that time could best be described as a venerable combination of extreme awe and jealousy; jealously because this foreigner had claimed an achievement which many of us only dreamt about.
Having placed Mortenson on high moral plane, I was therefore, like others, understandably shocked when I heard about the allegations last week that some parts of the book were untrue and that his organisation, the Central Asia Institute, “spent more money domestically” than it did on building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over the next few days, I noticed a barrage of Facebook and Twitter status updates from Pakistanis that ranged somewhere between “Greg Mortenson is an American Daakoo (robber)” to “Shame on CBS for lying”. While clearly disturbed by the allegations, I could not understand why some Pakistanis had so abruptly and provocatively turned against this man. It is not that I privately knew the allegations to be untrue but as a Pakistani, I just did not and still do not feel that it is useful or dignified to attach negative labels to Mortenson.
As far as I know, no one has claimed that Mortenson sucked money out of Pakistan or defrauded Pakistanis for private benefit: we know that he built many (albeit, perhaps not as many as claimed) schools, highlighted the plight of girls education and raised much funds for Pakistan through his books and lectures. Of course, he may have used stories of his not wholly true adventures in Pakistan to market his book and raise donations from Americans, only a portion of which probably ended up making its way to good causes in the region. As such, donors in America may well have good reason to be angry with him as he may have not been completely honest with them. However, I am not convinced that we, as Pakistanis, have strong reasons to do so. The ‘harm’ he caused us is not real harm but rather the lack of additional benefit: we saw less funds than we could have when he used some of the money on his lifestyle but that in itself is not a good enough reason to aggressively take part in demonizing Mortenson.
In a day and age when we have come to expect our own leaders to almost always drain the state financially and when we routinely praise public displays of philanthropy by local businessmen who are known bank defaulters, should we really be taking a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude in this whole fiasco against Mortenson when arguably he has not caused us any such harm?
Yes, Mortenson probably isn’t the angel many of us thought him to be; most people are not. Still, I do not think it is fair to jump on the moral policing brigade calling him a “daakoo” and condemning him to the shameful corridors of history when he probably got more done for the people of Baltistan than many of our countrymen would have if given the exact same opportunity and funds. Let’s be clear, the Pakistani complaint cannot be that he deceived us, it can only be that he claimed more success than he deserved. I am not in the least arguing that we should be blind to the truth or happily allow strangers to be deceived as long as it doesn’t affect us; all I’m saying is that we should really think long and hard before passing judgment on Mortenson when practically speaking, he has probably had a very positive social impact in a country which other foreigners have only very easily tended to dismiss as a lost cause, not worthy of their dime or time.
At such, I firmly believe we may be shooting ourselves in the foot by participating in this blame-game. If Mortenson is discredited and his organisation shuts down, we will gain nothing. Instead, we will suffer great harm by the sudden loss in whatever funding we receive from the Central Asia Institute. Rather as Pakistanis, our interests would be much better served by acknowledging this American’s contributions to our country, maintaining neutrality in this dispute but at the same time showing honesty by co-operating with investigations. In return we should use this opportunity strategically to negotiate for more transparency and a greater share of donations in the future.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.