Three Cups of Tea is an inspirational and educational account of Greg Mortenson’s experience as founder of the Central Asia Institute, which, by building schools and providing basic infrastructure, helps combat the impoverished conditions that fuel terrorism, specifically in the Middle East.

Greg Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute

I thought it was particularly interesting to see this American’s fight against terrorism, since our own fight against terrorism is not exactly being won, and it could be argued that Greg Mortenson alone made more of a positive difference in the Middle East than the United States as a nation. Mortenson repeatedly stresses that bombs and guns do not combat terrorism, education does.

Education certainly empowers individuals that would have had little opportunity otherwise, especially women. And, according to Mortenson, the more children who enroll in CIA schools that provide balanced education, the less children who would succumb to being influenced and educated by radical madrassas, native institutions that are known to sometimes foster terrorism. Giving these children opportunities and keeping them out of trouble makes a big difference in the global fight against terrorism, but equally important is the relationships that can be built from education. General Brigadier Bashir Baz suggested to Mortenson, “You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. In America’s case…the enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever.”

Building relationships can be a form of education in and of itself. Mortenson was educated by almost every person he met in the villages and towns he visited; moreover, he formed very close bonds with the people he helped and who helped him, and he learned just how similar these people were to himself. Mortenson was an American, but he was welcomed into Pakistani homes as a native, and treated like family by most. This is strong evidence that cultural barriers can be crossed and virtually any two humans can form a meaningful bond, given the right conditions. It became clear to me as I read Three Cups of Tea that the citizens of these villages recognized that as humans, we are all members of the same species. The ignorance in America that Bashir Baz spoke of comes from the deep-rooted prejudice that many Americans foster within themselves and allow to sabotage relations with other cultures.

Mounting social psychological evidence suggests the importance of simple contact between cultures. Regardless of the reasons that some cultures are highly prejudiced and others are not, lack of contact with other cultures can perpetuate prejudice. Perhaps since the United States and other developed countries are largely influenced by media, their citizens are provided with limited, filtered information regarding other cultures and nations. Exposure to and connection with other cultures could help combat the prejudices that Americans develop throughout their lives with the help of the media. Contact with and education about other groups of people can reduce the need for in-group and out-group distinctions, make out-group members more likable, reduce anxiety about interacting with members of other groups and teach people that not all members of one group are the same, which would eliminate broad stereotypes that can be harmful in society (Stephan & Stephan, 1985).

Mortenson has educated Americans about Middle Eastern cultures with his book Three Cups of Tea and with his lectures across the nation, but I believe that contact with members of other cultures is equally as important as being educated about them. Exchange programs are a great step in the right direction, but exchange programs do not often reach out to Middle Eastern students and other students worldwide who may not have the means to participate in these programs. So, Americans may learn only about more privileged cultures through exchange programs. If we are to combat the prejudiced attitudes that fuel terrorism and hatred, we must make civil contact with members of cultures that are plagued by local conditions that perpetuate the spread of terrorism.

Stephan, W. G., & Stephan, C. W. (1985). Intergroup anxiety. Social Issues, 41, 157-175.