Posts tagged ‘Islam’

Three Cups of Tea

Cover of "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Jo...

Cover via Amazon

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin is the story of Mortenson, a young mountain climber and hippie who impulsively decided to build a school for the children of a poor mountain village in Pakistan. In the early 1990s, Mortenson, whose younger sister had just died, came down from a failed attempt to climb K2. The climb was supposed to be his memorial to his sister, Christa. He was lucky to have escaped from the climb with his life. His guide had lost him, and the guide had Mortenson’s pack with all his food, drink and survival gear with him.

The people of a mountain village were kind enough to offer him shelter and help him to recuperate. The name of the town was Korphe, and when Greg saw the children of this town on a hillside, trying to practice writing and arithmetic with sticks in the sand, he asked them why they weren’t at school. He learned that they didn’t have a school. Pakistan has government funded education, but this is available in larger towns and cities only. Greg Mortenson was so impressed with the children of Korphe and his experience there that he promised to build them a school.

The process was slow going at first. Mortenson learned that he could build a good, solid school building in Pakistan for only $12,000. Astounding, huh? The only problem was that he didn’t have $12,000, and the $12,000 didn’t include his round trip fare to Pakistan. Mortenson was an emergency room nurse. He lived as frugally as possible in order to save his money. He was essentially homeless. He slept in his bedroll on the floor of a friend’s apartment or in his car. Still, it seemed to take forever to save the money he needed.

Mortenson’s mother was the principal of an elementary school. The students at her school saved pennies in jars. They called the project Pennies for Peace, and when the project was done for the year, they had saved over $600 in pennies. The mountain climbing community embraced Greg’s vision for a school, and they let him give talks at a lot of their seminars.

At one of these seminars Greg was introduced to Jean Hoerni, an eccentric engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur who had a hand in the creation of Teledyne, Union Carbide, and Intel. Hoerni was a very wealthy mountain climber who had been moved by the poverty of the people in the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan, where Mortenson wanted to build his school. Hoerni gave Greg a check for $12,000.

There were many, many stumbling blocks on the road to that school in Korphe. There was a man Greg trusted with the storage of his building materials only to come back and find that he used or sold a great deal of them. There was graft and religious leaders looking for bribes. There were people from other villages who were intent on diverting Greg from Korphe to build a school in their villages, or to build a school for porters instead. But there were also lots and lots more good people who helped him along the way: trusted advisors, a bodyguard willing to lay down his life for Greg, a religious leader who was willing to put his reputation on the line and to petition the highest Shia authority in Iran to approve of Greg’s schools and the education of Pakistani girls, in particular.

Once the first school was built, Jean Hoerni gave the money to start a non-profit with an endowment of one million dollars. Greg started the Central Asia Institute. The Central Asia Institute now has many, many schools for boys and girls in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Along the way, Mortenson met his wife and started his family. Both the Central Asia Institute and Pennies for Peace are currently thriving.

And why, might you ask, is this important for you to know about? Well, what Greg is doing is important because education is important, period, and because we should be concerned about those people who are less fortunate than us, whether they live next door or in the tiniest town in Afghanistan. And also: educating boys and girls in Pakistan does more to combat terrorism and the extremists of Islam than bombs and guns ever will. Bombs and guns make terrorists. Those children who are given a well-rounded basic education by Mortenson’s schools are the benefits of knowledge. That knowledge will help them to make better decisions about what to do with their lives and how to view their fellow citizens of the world.

The alternative for many of these children is either no education at all or an education of hatred provided by the Saudi funded madrassas. Wealthy Saudi Arabians fund madrassas in poverty-ridden countries. These madrassas do not provide education to girls, and they often do not provide the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. There is a lot of range in the quality of madrassas. Instead, what they never fail to teach is the rhetoric of fundamentalist Muslims. They teach the Koran to boys who cannot read it for themselves. Sometimes the teachers can’t, either.

The purpose of these schools is to recruit future soldiers for the Al Quaeda and the Taliban and other such organizations that propagate violence. And, much like in America, the wealthy fund the military while the poor become its foot soldiers. The Saudis don’t send their sons to “war.” Instead, they recruit the young men in Pakistan and Afghanistan who don’t have the opportunities that Saudi oil wealth provides.

Three Cups of Tea is an important book, and anyone seeking to further understand the politics of the Middle East and the people of Islam would be well served in taking the time to read it. There is no religious message in the book. The book is about people and cultures and working to find our commonalities rather than our differences. Mortenson grew up in Africa, the son of Lutheran missionaries, but he himself is not a particularly religious man. He learns to pray like both a Sunni and a Shia Muslim in order to fit in, and he adopts the culture and learns the languages of his second home. When in Rome…

September 24, 2010 at 2:41 pm 1 comment


NYC: World Trade Center

Image by wallyg via Flickr

I remember where I was nine years ago when I found out about 9/11. I was in a car on my way to work. I was driving to my job at the basement of an office building on Lamar & Martin Luther King. I was working for a tiny company that sold and produced on hold messages.

The radio, on my way in, was saying that an airplane had flown into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. I wondered if it was a joke. Although, who in the world would joke about a thing like that? I think it was just the shock of it all.

When I got in to work that morning, none of us was working. We were all huddled around TVs and monitors. We shared office space with a small production company that did primarily advertising work in radio and television. A lot of editing equipment and audio-visual components surrounded us, and there was no shortage of ways to watch the coverage.

I saw “live” coverage of the second plane running into the building. I saw television coverage of the whole event and the aftermath over and over and over again until you were almost, but not quite, desensitized to it all. The smoke, the broken glass, the bodies falling or jumping, the rescue workers in masks, rubble, people, blood. I cried.

And after the shock wore off: anger, rage. And this didn’t even happen to me. I didn’t even live in New York City. I lived in Austin, Texas. Thousands of miles away. But this is America, and what happened in New York City felt like a very personal violation to us all.

In the months following the attack, my government lied to me. They outright lied and told me that Saddam Hussein was behind the bombing. The government of Iraq was undeniably linked to the money trail. Intelligence sources had confirmed. Even Colin Powell looked into a camera and lied to me. And I bought into that lie, hook, line and sinker.

We sent our boys over there to die in order to secure oil, not to prevent terrorism or to exact revenge. It was about money, plain and simple. Cheney’s buddies made a lot of money off of war profiteering. And in the end, much like with the recent financial crisis, the real bad guys will get off scott free. The lesson I learned is that the good guys, the winners, are the ones with money.

We’re still not out of Iraq or Afghanistan, despite the fact that I helped elect a new President to his post based in part on the promise he made me that we would leave. He promised to send our boys home. They’re still being sent there. Osama is still hiding out in a cave somewhere. Our boys are still coming home in body bags. For how much longer are we going to continue to find this acceptable?

Pompous and ignorant windbags in Florida get their fifteen minutes of fame for threatening to burn a Quran. People get up in arms over a proposed “Ground Zero Mosque” that’s really an Islamic Community Center, nowhere near Ground Zero. Our President gets accused of being a Muslim, as if which religion he practices, let alone whether he has a faith at all, can qualify or disqualify him for higher office. We shame those people who died in 9/11. They must turn in their graves.

September 11, 2010 at 3:09 pm 2 comments

Hiding Behind the Burka

Roughly one month ago France passed into law a ban on the burka. The burka is a light, loose garment worn over a woman’s clothing that also covers her head, hair and face. A Muslim woman wears this in public when she will be seen by any man who is not her spouse or close blood relative. Only her eyes and her hands can be seen. This, some Muslims feel, maintains their requirement of hijab, a quality of personal modesty that is an imperative of all Muslims, both male and female.

Although all Muslims are required to observe hijab, not all Muslims feel that a burka is needed. The burka tends to be worn mostly in Pakistan and Afghanistan and in rural areas of Muslim countries that are controlled by rigidly fundamentalist offshoots of Islam, such as, oh, The Taliban, for instance. Not all Muslims observe the custom of the burka any more than all Christians are Amish or all Jews Hasidic. If you want to see what all the fuss is about, then you can see several examples of the burka in HBO’s horrid Sex and the City movie sequel.

The ban of the burka in France is the culmination of a complex issue stemming from a history of colonialism, racism, and the exploitation of cheap labor. We as Americans tend to think of the French as being a very progressive society with regards to race relations. Indeed, many American black artists were very successful in France, where they were treated as equals by the French in a time when segregation and Jim Crow laws were still being enforced here. Both Josephine Baker and Quincy Jones spent considerable time in France.

France, like any other European nation of any power and political might, had occupied territories throughout the globe, from the 1600s through the middle of the last century. For example, the French colonized parts of Canada and America. And as a general rule, they were much more egalitarian in their relations with the Native Americans than their British counterparts, and later the white Americans.

Beginning in 1830 the French colonized parts of North Africa, including Algiers. Algiers is a predominantly Muslim nation. The country is racially Arabic. The French used Algiers as any nation who colonizes another will do. They exploited its natural resources, including its people for cheap labor. America has done the same. Think Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Panama.

With the advent of the first World War in 1914, French men were needed to fight but men were still needed to work in what was then a largely industrial economy. France imported Algerian laborers. The Algerian men found the working conditions and the living arrangements to be much more pleasant than in their native country, and a wave of immigration began. Large numbers of Algerians settled into French cities in pockets, like Little Italy or Chinatown. The French were happy to have the Algerians work for little money doing the sorts of difficult and menial jobs that they needed done but didn’t want to do, in much the same way as many Mexicans work in America now.

Prior to the French Revolution in 1789 the French economy was controlled by the nobility in a feudal system. Money was made primarily from agricultural concerns. After the revolution, France was an agrarian society and then, from the mid 1800s to the beginning of the last century, France was an industrialized nation. Now industrialized nations are shifting to service economies. Manufacturing jobs that created and sustained a prosperous middle class in America and many western European nations are being parceled away to developing states in Asia and Africa.

Given that it has now been almost a full century since the first wave of immigration began, many former Algerians have become naturalized French citizens. And three or four generations of Arabic men and women are native French people with just as much claim to be French as anyone of Gallic ancestry. The problem is that the Algerian-French are the minority in France. They are easily recognized as being physically different from their white countrymen. Prejudice abounds.

The biggest consequence of this bigotry is the preferential treatment given to “racially pure” French people when it comes to employment. The unemployment rate in France is currently 10%. This means that a lot of Algerian-French are currently unemployed. France is a socialized country, and they subsidize the unemployed like we give money to “welfare mothers” here in America, in order to sustain people who are unable to secure work and to ensure that they are still able to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables.

The French resent that the Algerian immigrants and the Algerian-French are a drain on their system. This attitude further debilitates the efforts of the Arabic to find employment, as most of the hiring for jobs is controlled by Gallic people.

This means that a lot of Algerian-French are restless and angry young men and women with a lot of time on their hands. What will happen when a people are collectively repressed? What happens when people feel like refugees in their own homeland? What happens to a people when they are denied equal opportunity, when they are denied a decent wage and an occupation that allows them to contribute to their society?  Well, if they’re anything like the French peasants in 1789, then they rebel.

The difference between the French peasants and the Algerian-French in this scenario is that the peasants outnumbered the nobility. They were able to secure a victory by the sheer force of their numbers. But when your oppressor is in the majority, you go all jihad on his ass. I’m not sanctioning terrorism. I’m just explaining the mindset behind this, the rationale.

The terrorists in France feel as if they have no power to affect change beyond tactics of fear. The problem is that they are just exacerbating the situation. And now large numbers of Algerian-French who would never think to attack a subway train with a suicide bomb or approve of such tactics are being tainted with the stain of the minority of those who are.

And this brings us full circle back to the ban on the burka. There are two reasons that are being cited for why the burka is being banned. Ostensibly, the French claim that the burka allows for a terrorist to conceal a bomb or other weapon more easily. The second reason why the French want to ban the burka has to do with women’s rights since they see the burka as an obvious attempt to subjugate Muslim women.

Well, if the French are banning the burka to prevent terrorism, they might as well ban trench coats and parade costumes while they’re at it. Why not pass a new law that all women have to walk around in lingerie and high heels whenever they’re in public? It would be pretty hard to conceal a weapon that way. And it would be difficult to run worth a damn in those heels.

As for the second reason why the burka is being banned in public: women’s rights. It’s easy for those of us in Western nations to look at the conditions of women in the majority of the world and reach a faulty conclusion that Islam is associated with all manner of evil towards women. The truth is that much of what we see in terms of the abuse and repression of women comes from the culture of that country and not from Islam itself. Islam in its inception was actually very progressive in its attitudes towards women, allowing them to keep their own property in a marriage, to own property, to inherit from their parents or spouses, to divorce their spouses, and even under certain conditions meant to ensure their safety, to work.

The burka could just as easily be seen as a sign of freedom as it is a sign of bondage. Women who wear it as a choice say that they are free to come and go as they wish without being stared at by men or being treated as a sexual object. I have to admit that there is something a little appealing in that, not enough to make me wear one, but I get it.

For those women who maybe don’t want to wear one but are made to wear them by their husbands or families, the burka can also be seen as a freedom. What is happening to all those women in France who either feel that the Q’uran commands them to wear a burka or are subject to the influence of men who feel that way? Do you think the husbands and fathers of these women suddenly changed their minds based on the ruling of a French parliament made up of secular humanists and Roman Catholics? Yeah, I don’t, either. I think those women are now literally trapped in their homes twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

The French have much more complex problems than that of a woman’s garment. To legislate what a woman can wear in public as if it’s any business of the government what a woman wears as long as her private parts aren’t exposed, seems obscene. Hell, in Austin, I can legally walk around topless if I want. I think France is a better country than this.

After all, they were smart enough to see through the second Iraq War before the majority of Americans caught on to the deception of our own President and his war profiteering buddies. They gave us the Statue of Liberty, and we wouldn’t have New Orleans if it weren’t for the French. They recognized the brilliance of Jackie Kennedy. They are the culinary measuring stick against which the cuisine of the rest of the world is held. And their President is married to a supermodel. C’mon, guys. You can do better than this.

If you want to just wet your feet a little as to the history of relations between the French and their Algerian immigrants, instead of doing the copious amounts of reading on the internet that I had to do in order to write this blog post for you, I recommend adding a French film called Cache, starring Juiette Binoche, to your Netflicks queue.

August 15, 2010 at 6:56 pm Leave a comment

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