Making sense of Mortenson

All day long I have been utterly fascinated with the revelations about Greg Mortenson’s falsehoods and mismanagement of his organization, the Central Asia Insitute, which he created to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I vowed to write a lengthy essay tonight to get out all the thoughts this episode has provoked — but it’s 1:00 AM and I still haven’t finished the esteemed Jon Krakauer’s 75-page exposé, “Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way.” Thus, I offer just a few disjointed comments, pending my completion of the article and, ahem, the book.

First, let me suggest a partial reading/watching list, which my Twitter feed should continue to augment in the next few days:

  • Ideally, at least one of Mortenson’s books, especially Three Cups of Tea. In fact, I haven’t read them, though they have been recommended and gifted to me on numerous occasions.
  • The 60 Minutes episode from Sunday, 4/17/11.
  • Mortenson’s response in an Outside magazine interview.
  • CAI/Mortenson’s response to 60 Minutes’s questions (I believe they came too late to make it into the program).
  • A blog of the Economist parsing of one of at least two insidiously racist assertions in Mortenson’s Outside responses: that the “archaic” Balti language makes locals unfit to retell the dates of his arrival in their village. As a friend who is an anthropology professor specializing in this region wrote to me: “I find that claim to be rather dubious. Even if their language is an archaic dialect of Tibetan, Baltis have been Muslim for centuries and are presumably well acquainted with the Islamic clandar. Also presumably there would be at least one or two teachers or officials in even the smallest village who would be invested in being modern. Or there would be in China at any rate…”The other insidiously racist passage (and shameless passing of the buck) is Mortenson’s suggestion that there is something called a “confidence trick” in “Africa and Asia” whereby local staff take advantage of donors after years of gaining their trust. While certainly possible, this is not limited to Africa and Asia (dude, I’ve heard about some stuff working for the San Francisco city government, believe you me), and is just a lazy reference to a trope, which is an artifact of colonial times, about the dangers of the wily native.
  • Finally, and most importantly, read Krakauer’s article (downloadable for free for about the next 48 hours). It’s astonishing —  even if I haven’t finished it yet — not least because the CAI/Mortenson fabrications occurred in plain view for a decade and a half.

This affair illuminates an intersection of many social and political issues. It’s about much more than the individual, Mortenson. I’m thinking here of the narratives of GWOT; the fundamental problems with accountability of private nongovernmental work overseas; the unquestioning of the American public when we are spoon-fed facile stories of foreign lands populated with casts of wild-eyed fundamentalists, noble savages, and their helpless babies, who need us oh so much.

More deeply, it makes me suspicious of charity as a solution to complex problems. The violence and inequality in regions such as AfPak — and indeed the world — are political in origin and demand political solutions. To the extent that we can ameliorate problems with charity, without also reforming the power imbalances, laws, and crippled economies beneath them, we sometimes risk simply whitewashing, and we will necessarily create cases like Mortenson/CAI.

And the truly saddening thing is that a lot of evidence shows we want to continue believing fairy tales like Mortenson’s rather than face the difficult necessity of reforming our relationship with the world. A saccharine story and a donation are exponentially easier to digest than the systemic reform that is truly needed for any lasting change.

Take the fan base’s responses to Krakauer and 60 Minutes. Monitoring the comments to the articles above and the #Mortenson Twitter feed, it is easy to see that many, many people are ready to forgive Mortenson, without further ado.

His heart was in the right place. He really raised awareness about the need for education. Sure, some money was wasted, but a lot of it ended up in good places. The media is sensationalist. It’s a beautiful vision.

Please, please, don’t take our easy, breezy bedtime story away from us…

Iraqi Christian exodus: my mom’s letter about the war

More Christians are fleeing Iraq in response to targeted violence, the New York Times reported yesterday. Every time I read about this or other ethnic exoduses in the Middle East, I wince a little thinking how these once-pluralistic countries are being inexorably pushed toward homogeneity. A good scholar of Middle Eastern history knows how factually wrong it is when Americans shrug their shoulders and say, “these groups have been at each other’s throats for thousands of years.” In Iraq and Syria, that simply wasn’t true (though societies weren’t harmonious Utopias either). But for how things are going now, it might as well have been.

In 2006, my mom and I confronted this in a far more acute way, when she visited me in Damascus, where I was living. On a field trip to an ancient Christian shrine, we were forced to confront this aspect of the war in Iraq firsthand, as we listened to the tearful admonishments of a survivor — a survivor of our American war.

My mom wrote a letter to then-President Bush in response to the experience. Reading the Times article, I feel like it is still relevant, if for no other reason than to remind us of how our country will long be tied to the experiences of Iraqis. I got her permission to post it here, in a slightly trimmed-down form.

Letter from Damascus
June 2006

Mr. President,

I was recently in Damascus, Syria and visited a place that I thought you would find moving.  It is located within the walls of the old city, reputed to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.  To find this place you must enter through one of the many gates that were built into this wall by the city’s various rulers, some by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago. One hundred years ago these gates were all locked at sunset, but today you may enter freely at any time.  Find the gate called Bab Touma and enter on foot, leaving behind the chaos that characterizes modern Damascus.  A sense of timelessness unfolds as you follow curving passageways formed by the mud brick walls of houses and shops on all sides.  Looking overhead you will see grapevine-draped balconies that nearly touch each other from opposite sides of the lane. Over the centuries people have sat in their houses and passed tea back and forth across the lanes and into each others’ homes while they conversed and gossiped, escaping the midday heat.

You will almost certainly hear the call to prayer which flows and drifts through the old city, which is filled with mosques. But if you look closer, you will notice that around you are many churches and small shrines set into alcoves that contain Christian icons with Arabic script describing what the icons represent. And then you will realize that you are in the Christian Quarter of old Damascus—Bab Touma. If you continue toward Straight Street and Bab Sharqi–the Eastern Gate–you may see, at the edge of a small square, the entrance to a small chapel, called Saint Ananias Church.

This location is described in the New Testament of the Bible.  Here is the story of Saul who, entering Damascus, fell from his horse and became blind.   For three days he lay blind and without food until a Syrian named Ananias found him, converted him to Christianity, and cured him of his blindness.  Thus began the life of St. Paul, who changed his name upon conversion and became a major disciple of Jesus.  You must be familiar with this story—every Christian knows it—but I wonder if you know that it happened in Damascus?

If you enter the low doorway as I did you will find a cave-like chapel built into the wall of the ancient city.  The stones laid down by the Romans were incorporated into a small  altar at one end.  To the side is an even smaller chapel with plaques showing the various stages of Saul’s conversion.  The last plaque shows Paul being lowered in a basket out of a window in the ancient wall. Indeed, the plaques show what happened in this place nearly 2,000 years ago.  In case my description has not allowed you to visualize the place, I am including a photograph of it.

Inside the Ananias chapel (photo from Wikicommons)

Once inside the church, I recalled this story of Saul from my long ago childhood, when Damascus was only an exotic, storied, and distant place.  This is indeed a place for contemplation of history and man’s place within it.

A few minutes after I entered I was approached by a woman, dressed in a black coat and wearing a black head covering.  Although her hair was concealed, I could see that she was a middle-aged woman whose large black eyes were surrounded by lines of pain and grief.  Her two daughters were at her side and they wandered  away, with embarrassment as teenagers will do, as she spoke to me.

“You are American?”

“Yes,” I spoke knowing that it is unusual to encounter an American in Syria, yet she could recognize me.

“Please,  tell your Mr. President Bush that he must stop making the war on Iraq.”  Her English was rough yet she was speaking quickly, without hesitation, straight from the heart.  “He is destroy our country, he kills the people, our homes are gone forever.  And why?  Why?”  Her eyes pleaded with me for explanation.

“I am an Iraqi Christian woman.  We left our home to Syria–it is not safe in Iraq.  My husband is killed in the invasion,  my son, too.  They tried to kidnap my daughter.”  Her eyes filled with tears and still begged for understanding and her voice became a controlled sob.  “We come to Syria, but there is nothing here for us.  Nothing to do.  No way to support ourselves.  We are far from home.  We cannot return.”

My son stood beside me and we found ourselves unable to say anything.  How could I say that I opposed this war from the beginning?   How could I comment that I had marked every anniversary of the start of the war with a peace parade pleading for its end?  For what would this mean to a woman who had lost her husband, and her son?  And her center—her very home?

So, I held the woman’s rough hands in my own and looked into her eyes, mother-to-mother and woman-to-woman.  Both of our eyes were full of tears and I could say nothing though my heart beat “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  For your suffering.  For what my nation has done to yours and to your life.”

She asked me to tell my President to stop making war on her country.  And so I am.  And so I do.


This really happened.

“I’m not a racist, but…”

Muslims on a plane: Juan Williams gets the shakes? (Photo by Juan E De Cristofaro.)

I once heard a joke third-hand from a friend, a joke I’ve always thought encapsulated so many things about the way underhanded bigotry is expressed in contemporary America:

When someone says, “Look, I’m no racist, but …” what they really mean is, “I’m a racist. Here’s an example.”

Alas, I have not encountered an example yet where this sentence decoding doesn’t hold at least a little bit true. Take Juan Williams’s comments on The O’Reilly Factor, for instance, talking about GWOT, etc.

I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

That statement and others got the journalist canned from NPR yesterday.

It’s a bit more complicated than the statement, though. Watch the clip. Williams is actually the liberal talking head and appears to have made his “Muslim garb” comment to gain credibility on O’Reilly’s reactionary show — ironcially, in order to make the argument that painting Muslims with a broad brush is undesirable and dangerous.

In other words, he’s effectively saying: Look, Bill, I’m prejudiced  just like you and your viewers. So trust me when I say that there’s still a need to be politically correct.

I take it as a misguided and unwise rhetorical gambit. It failed to make the confusing point Williams was apparently trying for, and legitimized prejudice against Muslims. Take a look.

Update 10/22: Fox has signed Juan Williams for a $2 million, three-year contract.

Echoes of colonialism in war strategy

Statue of General Charles Gordon, the British "martyr" of the Sudanese River Wars. Photo: Brian Herrington Spier.

I hate to beat the same old imperialism horse over and over, but come on, now. Revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book — about Obama’s military strategists’ push for a bigger war commitment in Afghanistan — are hard not to read without thinking about the West’s long colonial history in Asia and Africa. (See WaPo article.) Some of the comments could be taken out of Winston Churchill’s memoirs of his swashbuckling pre-politics days in Africa. Witness, attributed to Petraeus:

You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It’s a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.

In other words, long-term occupation of foreign lands is necessary for their — and our — advancement? Sounds a little too familiar.

9/11 industrial complex

It’s a week since we marked the anniversary. Nine years later, it continues to boggle my mind how much 9/11 changed our standards for everything.

Credit: Nicholas Jones, flickr (click image).

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I was studying abroad in Ghana when it happened. I heard the news in the middle of the day, not the morning, and I watched the towers fall on a small screen TV in the first-floor computer lab of the Legon Hall Annex A dormitories — multistory cement shells with infrequent running water — with a lot of Ghanaian students (obviously) and the type of American kids who would sign up to study abroad in Ghana (use your imagination, or extrapolate from what you know of me). Not the same atmosphere in which many in America became aware of the attacks.

Maybe it’s because I was 20 years old when it happened, and on the cusp of entering a sort of adult awareness.

Or maybe it’s because I had only been to New York twice in my life — once when I was born, and once when I was ten years old, where my most vivid memory is getting my Bulls cap (perched stylishly on my head a la BBD) snatched off my head by a thief on a bicycle.

Also, I didn’t lose anyone in the attacks, or know anyone (at the time) who did.

Whatever the reasons, I experienced the attacks differently from many in the United States. And probably because of that, the changes upon my return to the United States were nearly as shocking as the event of 9/11 itself. Recovering from a month of malaria and sinus infections, I stumbled through an LAX landscape stolen from a sci-fi movie, a place apparently under siege. I couldn’t get over the fact that there were Marines with automatic weapons patrolling the halls. I was astounded that I was reprimanded at security for not taking the snotty tissues out of my pocket at the metal detector, as I entered the domestic terminal to transfer to a flight to San Francisco.
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More on convergence of war and gaming

Yesterday, I described two different perspectives about what it means to fight wars remotely and through computers. I’m not a gamer, so I wasn’t aware just how similar video games are to the video from Wikileaks. If you had the stomach to watch that clip (beware, it’s extremely violent and disturbing), you will probably shocked to see just how similar the game Call of Duty is to the actual experience:

My point here is not so much to slam video games, but to suggest there is something remarkable — and awful — about this convergence of technologies. Entertainment, since its earliest forms, has always used war as inspiration. But until now it has been impossible to have a simulated experience that is so nearly exactly like the real one.

And it’s not that entertainment has chased war as much as some experiences of war — the remote ones — are becoming more like entertainment. Part of the appeal of entertainment that shows killing is that it removes all the nastier aspects of the experience — from the humanity of an enemy to the feeling of immediate vulnerability. Old west gunfights were probably nothing like those in High Plains Drifter. Saving Private Ryan might be uncomfortably real, but it certainly can’t be a substitute for participating in D-Day. The similarity between coordinating drone strikes, though, and playing Call of Duty seems unprecedented.

Does this influence how we as a country decide which wars to wage? It’s hard to say for sure, but there are certainly some interesting parallels between our foreign policy and the experience the technology helps create: god-like feelings of omnipotence, invulnerability, superiority, cold detachment from others’ suffering.

It is awe-inspiring technology, but it is also dangerous — not just for journalists carrying video cameras around the streets of Baghdad, but, I think, for the people pulling the trigger (or pushing the buttons). Or maybe I just think that way because my parents read me Lord of the Rings when I was 10.

(Hat-tip MB.)

Video game wars -The Times vs. Wikileaks

The New York Times just printed a gushing (one might even say jingoistic) report on how the military is using new technology to tap into Generation Y’s social networking skills to nail insurgents and protect American troops, all from thousands of miles away. Read the Times’ account, and you’d think this is mostly an exciting technology, which earnest, freckle-faced youths can use to scrub bad guys while they befriend their tougher colleagues on the ground, via chat rooms.

But as even that article acknowledges, the technology sometimes goes awry, like the time in February when Predator drones in Afghanistan snuffed out the lives of 23 innocent men, women and children — just one of many such incidents.

Well, here’s another perspective on what it means to turn the enemy (or those assumed to be) into pixelated blobs: Wikileaks’ video of a U.S. helicopter annihilating as many as 12 people in 2007 on a Baghdad  street, including two Reuters journalists.

I’m not embedding the video on this site because it makes me feel physically sick to watch it, and there’s really no commentary I can give that will add to its value. You will note, however, how much the clip looks like a short segment of Grand Theft Auto. Right down to the dialogue: After the first round of shooting is finished, a voice says, “Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards” and another begs a dying man to pick up a weapon, implying that he’d then have a license to kill.

In some sense, this is just a raw dispatch from war. I’ve never been in a war, and I can only assume that its dialogue has been and always will be full of the most unpleasant things imaginable.

There is a particular coldness to this killing, though, and I think the technology has something to do with it. I hardly think we should celebrate it. The military says that rules of engagement were followed. If that is true, that is an indictment of the technology.

To see a sanitized version of the Wikileaks video, take a look at this BBC report on the detention of a US military analyst, possibly for leaking the tape.

Credit where it’s due — second NY Times article on Shahzad

It’s always easy to criticize. Let me offer a bit of praise. Last Sunday’s Times article on Faisal Shahzad was a massive improvement — from the perspective of implied narratives — over the previous week’s article on the influence of Awlaki, which I criticized. Mainly, it’s better because it focuses on the personal travails of Shahzad and their intersection with larger forces, which to me gives a more complete — if less scary — account of why he did what he did. (I can only assume the editors read this blog and responded accordingly!)

Another note on Awlaki

I have to admit, part of the reason I spent a few hours today coming up with my earlier post is that the Times’ account of Anwar al-Awlaki is one of the most frightening GWOT stories to date. The idea that there is this guy out there who fully understands American culture, and may have been at a sort of double agent for Al Qaeda for years, all the time fulfilling the role of reasonable, patriotic Muslim, is very disturbing.

That’s if you believe he’s helping to steer a huge conspiracy that’s responsible for the attempted attacks in the last few months. I don’t buy that. I think he — and his supposed disciples — are symptoms of other factors and forces (as I describe). But the other explanation is less complicated, and possesses that strange magnetism of dread. Interestingly, I think the cause of the crazies benefits from our GWOT-narrative interpretation of events — it gives them power.

Also, just to clarify: I think violence that these so-called mujahideen (strugglers) promote is awful, stupid and reprehensible. I hope my enumeration of things that people are angry about is not misread as an apology for the likes of Shahzad or Stack.

Finally, can you spot the Arabic errors in the Times article? First, there’s the persistent issue of why “Allah” is not translated to “God,” as makes sense. Then there’s the part that uses kuffar as a singular word when it’s actually plural. “Never, ever trust a kuffar,” Awlaki supposedly once said, meaning “unbeliever.” It’s more likely he said, “never, ever trust a kafir,” which is the singular form. A tiny thing, but one you’d think the Times would see, and makes you wonder about their language depth.

“It’s different when they’re Muslims”: the GWOT narrative is still alive

In many ways, the Sunday New York Times long article on Anwar al-Awlaki — the American Muslim cleric who they say inspired the Fort Hood shooter, the underpants bomber and Faisal Shahzad — is excellent journalism. It tells the complicated story of a man who was once considered a model, moderate Muslim after 9/11, decamped to Yemen as GWOT amped up, and is now said to be abetting Al Qaeda. The story is thorough and nuanced, and the breadth of sources is impressive.

But there’s something that concerns me about the whole premise of our collective inquiry into what drove Shahzad to try to bomb Times Square, and it’s encapsulated in this front-page story. There is an assumption that the driving force behind Shahzad and others’ turn to violence is powerful and poisonous rhetoric. This ignores the many other factors — many of them material, not ideological — that likely contribute to radicalization. We thus miss the full explanation for why so many angry men are attracted to the idea of waging random violence on Americans.

The Times story focuses on Awlaki as a man with a power of persuasion rooted in his total comfort with American culture (he was born in New Mexico) and his “beautiful tongue,” as one person described it. I have not watched the man’s sermons, but it seems probable this is an accurate assessment.

The interesting thing, though, is that law enforcement — and to some degree the newspaper — draw the conclusion that Awlaki’s charm and power as a speaker make him exceptionally dangerous, and a prime cause of individuals’ radicalization. His sermons alone are said to have the power to “brainwash.” The article suggests that there is a break — sometimes fuzzy, but very real — between Awlaki’s “benign” early sermons and his (malignant, I guess) later material.

The analysis of Awlaki’s character and influence is flawed for two reasons. One, it implicitly describes two versions of Islam in a special way that Western commentators reserve only for that religion. Two, it mostly ignores all the material and social pressures that are creating terrorists, and thus deceptively and erroneously elevates Awlaki’s power. Let me treat these two main flaws in turn. Continue reading