Three Cups of Tea – A Critical Review

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Different readers must have read Three Cups of Tea with varied perceptions and with different take-away lessons. Their impression and understanding is probably informed by their educational, professional, geographic, ethnic, and national backgrounds, as well as their knowledge of the geographies and cultures of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and, further, through awareness of past and current American involvement in these regions and its motives. However, not all readings of this book are equal and not all facts and lessons taken from the book are of value.

There is no doubt that the book presents a remarkable story of courage and compassion. The purpose of this review is not to question those values nor is it deny the personal struggles of the main character, Greg Mortenson, as depicted in the book. Rather, it is to scrutinize the cultural discourse and solutions through ‘development’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’ offered in it. As New York Times‘ bestseller, Three Cups of Tea has become quite the canon for policy makers, social workers and school teachers in many institutions. It has been published in two condensed versions for kids aged 4-8 and 8-13 in the year 2009, and has been a required reading not for only school kids and students majoring in social work studies, but also for senior commanding officers in the US military (according to the official website of the book). The availability of this book and its condensed editions in both original and pirated formats being sold in numerous bookstores throughout South Asian cities further indicates its increasing popularity. That makes it even more critical to carefully analyze the message of the book.

A particularly insightful approach to engage with this book is to examine its underlying normative assumptions and politics against the backdrop of the cultural discourse that is being utilized to justify ongoing American hegemonic expansionism. Such critical engagement is very relevant to how our humanitarian activists, policy makers, and general concerned audience understand these regions and its people. It is also relevant to the kind of measures we adopt in seeking to ‘solve’ the regions’ problems by deciding what precisely is the right thing to do, who should do it, and how.

Colonial Humanitarianism

Firstly, the book never questions the idea of “humanitarian” intervention by an imperial power like the US; it merely debates the method of such an intervention – that any military intervention should be accompanied by humanitarian reconstruction efforts, which would supposedly be a good thing for the local people and for the interest of American security. There is no reflection on Washington’s past record of military interventions and its outcomes in this argument, nor any appraisal of US motives and geo-strategic interests in the region. Yet before any other question is put forth, the legitimacy of humanitarian interventions should be interrogated: What gives a country – especially a country like the US with a terrible track record of militarism and human rights violations – the right to violate sovereignty of other countries in the name of ‘spreading democracy’ via so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’?

Moreover, in explaining the cause of extremism and “terror”, the book conveniently disregards the messy political history of the regions – perhaps because this would point to the pivotal role that CIA, ISI, and Saudis played in creating the menace of terrorism and extremism, complicating the overly simplistic analysis of terrorism presented in the book. However, for any analysis of terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan, what should not be forgotten is that the Cold War was not fought in America nor Europe, but rather in regions like Pakistan and Afghanistan which are still paying the price of that war. In their efforts to combat Soviets, the US and its allies heavily funded and nurtured the highest number of extremists from militants in the region, because as Mahmood Mamdani points out in his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, they believed fanatics fight harder. The US wanted to give Soviets their own Vietnam. The policy of using right wing religious organizations to combat socialist-nationalist impulses and movements was already a long-established US strategy at play in the Middle East, before it was applied to the Afghan case.

Quoting a scholar from Pakistan, Mamdani also describes how a radical school curriculum was developed in an American university that was then taught to the children in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, particularly in the NWFP (now known as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) and the FATA regions. The same children then would be recruited for fighting against the Soviets. The Taliban are the second generation of these extremist militants that the CIA, ISI, and Saudis nurtured together, spending over six billion dollars and providing them with sophisticated weapons and training. Without understanding this history and the influence of external powers, one cannot understand the causes of terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Furthermore, it should be made clear that American intervention in these (and other) regions of the world are themselves a kind of terrorism, which then breeds more terror and violence in retaliation.

Three Cups of Tea simply ignores this long history and continuing interests of regional and global powers. Instead, in its highly a-historical and a-political narrative, the roots of the problem are smoothly traced back to ‘internal’ causes within Muslim societies: the problem with competing interpretations of Islam and local socio-economic and cultural conditions, with a particular focus on illiteracy. The silence on the role of ‘external’ political factors allows the narrative of this book to present ‘our’ involvement as only humanitarian and benevolent: ‘We have nothing to do with their mess; we only want to help them fix their mess. We are able to do it, therefore, we should do it in good faith.’

As the book pampers the blissful ignorance of Americans – the primary target audience of the book – of the imperial and exploitative policies of their government, it also appeals to, and reinforces, a false sense of self-righteous philanthropy in them. Yet it is not philanthropy, but social justice that should be the idiom of American interaction with the rest of the world. The difference the latter approach makes is huge, inducing an attitude of humility and guilt whilst stimulating a critical political awareness.

What Americans need to understand is that their affluence, luxury, extravagant way of living and apathy toward politics are all directly linked to wars and exploitation of people and resources by their government in other parts of the world (and in their own country too). Each American – particularly those directly benefiting from the imperial exploitations – is morally responsible for the actions of its government. The place to start any humanitarian effort is to put a stop on their own government’s military adventurism as well as economic and cultural exploitations in other parts of the world. What needs to be understood is that anti-Americanism in most parts of the world stems not from ignorance, but from directly experiencing the consequences of American exploitation. Without considering and addressing the political causes, trying to change culture through educating Muslim societies will not prove to be very effective. On the contrary, such culture-centered resolutions have at times contributed to the propaganda and justification of Washington’s hegemonic expansionism. (See Lila Abu-Lughod’s and Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind’s articles cited below.)

Saving Muslims from Themselves

Building on that last point, before Americans seek to help other people they should seriously reflect on their own biases and normative assumptions. The narrative in Three Cups of Tea never seriously reflects on how colonialistic and arrogant it is to attempt to change the cultures of other people through military means or “soft” humanitarian efforts, to what “WE” consider is “right” for them. To save those people, civilize them and help them progress, is this not old colonial discourse of ‘white man’s burden’ in a new guise? Three Cups of Tea mentions another book, Ancient Futures, but never really connects the moral of that book to its own overriding message, especially the one presented in its second half. From the brief mention of this book, Ancient Futures appears to suggest that there can be multiple ways to be modern, and indigenous people and cultures do not necessarily need to follow the Western-European and American routes in order to become “modern”. In fact, their definition of “progressive” and “modern” may be very different from “ours”. This moral lesson was shared in Three Cups of Tea, but it never had any significant impact on its grand narrative or message, which remained couched in the idioms of “backward vs. modern”, “conservative vs. progressive” and “fundamentalist vs. tolerant”. At various points in the book, one gets the impression that the further one gets from his/her traditions and becomes more like “us” in thoughts and actions, the more “modern” one is deemed to be. Such measures of progress and achievement are especially apparent in the aspirations and changes reflected in the characters of Jahan, Aslam, and Tahira (See pages 195, 204, 299-303, 312).

The contention here is not about building schools or providing other welfare services to people, but about who is building them and with which assumptions and purpose. Furthermore, what kind of education is being offered in these schools? Which impressions about indigenous culture and life are being imparted, and at what cost?

With regards to impressions about indigenous culture and life, Three Cups of Tea misleadingly characterizes those residing in rural areas as wild, poor and ignorant, and therefore inclined towards extremism and terror. Quite the contrary, rural areas in Pakistan – especially those with sustainable living patterns and rich traditions – cannot always be considered to be poor. If progress is measured through happiness, peace, and trust, and not through complicated life arrangements and material luxuries of urban areas, some of these rural areas may be far richer than their urban neighbors. One should also bear in mind that the rural areas in most of Pakistan have been historically known for their pluralistic cultural environment, with emphasis on devotion and diffused religious culture and practices. This is especially true for the Northern Areas with very rich and diverse cultural histories.

To automatically associate rural areas with backwardness and ignorance is presumptuous and misleading. Although the intention in Three Cups of Tea was probably to develop a more sympathetic understanding of the focused regions and bring the West and East closer on humanitarian grounds, the narrative bears strong resemblance with the colonial-style Orientalist discourse about “other” cultures. That discourse was built on differences between “us” and “them”. The “us” in this discourse constructed its self-image in relation to “them” and viewed itself to be enlightened, civilized, and superior. The other, unfamiliar cultures were seen as barbarian and dangerous, therefore ought to be controlled and civilized. (See Edward Said’s insightful works cited below.)

Given such misleading impressions about rural areas, which are widespread not only among foreigners but also social workers and policy makers from urban areas of Pakistan, one wonders about the curriculum and teachings that are being imparted in those schools. What image of their own lands, their people, culture, and religion will the students develop through studying such a curriculum? And what impact it would have on their self-identity and sense of purpose when the Western-European and American historic experiences are taught to them as “universal” and the only route to modernization (or the most successful and natural route to modernization)? Such normative assumptions are abundant in the established, supposedly modern school curriculums found in both America and Pakistan. One therefore wonders, as the students are taught about Western advancements, are they also informed about colonialism and slavery not as exceptions but as part of the very logic of their “progress” and “civilization”, evident through the writings of John Locke and John Stuart Mill who rationalized and justified colonialism as a “progressive force” which would civilize the indigenous people in colonized territories? And, similarly, when the students are enchanted with dreams of Western modernity, are they also allowed to competently and critically reflect on possessive individualism, excessive consumerism, exploitation of environment and people, and secular transformation of religions and traditions, which are all part and parcel of Western “enlightenment” and capitalist advancements, and to decide if taking the western route to becoming “modern” is really that desirable?

Having spent some time in the Gilgit-Baltistan region recently and seen the outcome of some welfare projects run under similar organizations, including Aga Khan’s, I am very concerned about the notions of “development” which detach children from their roots and land, strip them of their identity and self-worth. Just as concerning are the notions of “progress”, defined primarily in materialistic terms, that is, material well-being of individuals and collectivities, with complete disregard for spiritual and cultural progress and values. It is one thing to adopt different norms and customs, but quite another to start considering your own traditional dress as dirty and backward. The character of Jahan in the book illustrates this problem quite well.

Pakistan certainly need more schools and quality education, yet simply constructing schools is not enough. The key is to look into the curriculum and teachers’ training. What kind of identity is being constructed in the process of schooling, which role models are being presented, what outlooks of the world and sense of purpose in life are being imparted, and what are the aims and values that are being constructed?

We need to ask similar questions about other development projects in the region: What are the costs and consequences with regards to the people, culture, identities, values, and environment?

Gross Misrepresentations

Apart from problems with normative assumptions in the book, there are gross misrepresentations which require thorough scrutiny. For example, as one commentator pointed out elsewhere, “Mortenson could not have attended Mother Teresa’s funeral in Spring 2000 (pp 233-235) because she died in Autumn 1997” (Nosheen Ali, 2010).

I also have serious doubts about Mortenson’s kidnap episode in Waziristan. Those familiar with the geography of the region know very well that the Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan) are miles apart from Peshawar and the FATA areas (where Waziristan is), and it makes little practical sense to expand the project to such a far-away region when Mortenson had not completed even his first school in Korphe, Baltistan (and the book itself admits that the people in Korphe’s neighboring areas desperately wanted schools in their localities). On the same note, consider also the November 1979 issue of TIME Magazine, which covered the Iran hostage crisis that Mortenson finds in his cell and through which he and co-author, David Relin, construct an emotion-filled, deeply touching narrative of fear and hope in the same episode. The story was probably quite inspiring to many American readers, but it is very unlikely for that English-language, 15 year old issue with a “garish painting of a scowling Ayatollah Khomeini” on the cover to be found in a cell located somewhere in the remote area of Waziristan. Likewise, the whole episode is filled with holes that were never satisfactorily addressed, leaving too many doubts. The episode, curiously enough, is also devoid of traceable details about Waziristan. One can similarly question his excursions, their nature and purpose, into Afghanistan immediately after the fall of the Taliban regime.

The Waziristan episode was critical to fuse together starkly different geographies, cultures, and political histories in order to frame Mortenson’s message in terms of combating terrorism. This became possible only by suppressing the rich history and variations among Northern Areas, Peshawar, FATA and Afghanistan. Northern Areas such as Gilgit-Baltistan have a 60-75 percent Shia population, whereas the demographic makeup in the FATA areas is quite the inverse. Northern Areas, furthermore, are ethnically and linguistically much more diverse than the FATA areas. The connection with terror of the Sunni-radical-Taliban kind could not have been made by merely discussing the Northern Areas, where Mortenson actually did the majority of his educational and welfare work. How then were these regions connected in Three Cups of Tea? Not through showing any parallels between their cultures, political histories, or geographies, but rather through Mortenson’s travel, through which the readers were made to believe that these starkly different regions can all be seen as one geographic and cultural entity – untamed, dangerous, in desperate need of education and enlightenment.

Perhaps the authors and publishers sought to cast these regions as one to make their story more marketable, considering the hype that surrounds terrorism and its ability to make money in America, as suggested by Nosheen Ali in her analysis (Nosheen Ali, 2010). Perhaps they also wanted to make their narrative more relevant and engage with the current war-on-terror discourse seriously and sincerely (yet lacking critical self-reflection) through their own liberal-humanist diagnosis of the problem – that is, “ignorance and backwardness are the root cause of terror in the Muslim world”.

The overly simplistic and generalized depiction of inhabitants of rural areas as wild, poor and ignorant in Pakistan and therefore inclined towards extremism was also instrumental for the authors to put forward their kind of solution: Build schools before madrassas get them. The implication of this solution is that secular education would turn students into “Good Muslims” (defined as modern, progressive, tolerant and pro-West) and remove their misunderstandings and apparent ignorance about America – which is characteristic of “Bad Muslims” (defined in the dominant cultural discourse as backward, fundamentalist, violent and anti-West).

Ignorance no doubt has created a lot of injustice in the world and no region is spared from its evils. For concerned Americans, perhaps the most optimal place to begin in combating ignorance is America itself. But simply creating more schools in America is not the solution. Celebrating Columbus Day as the day America was discovered rather than remembering it as the colonial exploitation of civilizations which already existed, and observing Thanksgiving as a national holiday rather than contemplating on the historic injustice done to Native Americans and slaves, will continue to reinforce that blissful ignorance and false self-righteousness in most Americans. Columbus Day and Thanksgiving are just two among many distorted elements in today’s established and dominant curriculum and teaching practices. What we need is a substantial transformation of the current curriculum taught in schools, and overcoming misleading content derived from other popular sources like television, movies, novels and magazines from which people learn history and construct their imaginations and identities. It is not philanthropy or false national pride, but a deep concern for social justice for all and a self-reflective and sincere understanding of other cultures that should constitute the guiding principles for developing that curriculum.

Further Readings:

Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? By Lila Abu-Lughod

Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency, by Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: Cracking the Media Code By Ali A.

Nosheen Ali’s analysis of Three Cups of Tea: Books vs Bombs? Humanitarian development and the narrative of terror in Northern Pakistan. 2010, Third World Quarterly, 31: 4, 541-559

Edward Said’s works, particularly Orientialism, Culture and Imperialism, and Covering Islam all deal directly with some of themes discussed in this review.

Ali A. is doctoral student in Social Sciences. He can be reached at

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