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Three Cups of Tea for Imperialism!


The history of tea is a history of imperialism, and so one should be suspicious when someone offers you, not one, but Three Cups of Tea. This bladder bursting offer however is exactly what Greg Mortenson has served up to the world with his semi-autobiographical bestseller Three Cups of Tea (TCT) — a rousing account of his humanitarian efforts to fight terrorism and bring peace to Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan through the creation of schools. So given Mortenson’s obsession with tea it is fitting that in keeping with tea’s imperial history that he has dished up a text that promotes nothing less than humanitarian imperialism.

For some people (most especially those he writes about), the propaganda function of Mortenson’s text has been obvious for years, and TCT has served, and continues to serve, as a critical means for sustaining the so-called war on terror. Yet for others the PR function of TCT is less clear, so Stanford University-based development sociologist, Dr Nosheen Ali, has recently provided a vital scholarly service to humanity by publishing an article in the journal Third World Quarterly titled “Books vs Bombs? Humanitarian Development and the Narrative of Terror in Northern Pakistan.”

In spite of the fact that TCT has “become a strategic guide for the US military;” sadly it has still gained credence as a popular humanitarian story precisely because it is “mildly self-critical about the war on terror, without actually problematising either terrorism or the war itself.”[1] By summarizing the main points made in Nosheen Ali’s excellent essay, this article aims to popularize her critique and undermine the ‘humanitarian’ propaganda function of Mortenson’s text in the hope of encouraging more people to seek the real and difficult solutions that will be need to bring poverty and imperialism to an end.

To begin with Ali points out how the “simplifications and silences” in TCT serve to “create a redemptive narrative of terrorism” which “embodies a depoliticised and dehistoricised representation of Northern Pakistan, of rural ‘ignorance’ and ‘extremism’ within it, as well as of global terrorism more generally.”

In sum, this massively popular and well-publicized text provides the ideological justification for what Jean Bricmont refers to as humanitarian imperialism, or what Ali prefers to call a ‘participatory militarism’, “in which humanitarian development projects service the cultural reinvention of the military to justify and extend US imperialism.” [2] One should note though, that by making this point Ali does not mean that Mortenson’s efforts are not inspired by great “courage and compassion.” [3] Far from it, as in fact, the more vigorously Mortenson believes himself to be an independent actor — just telling his own little story — then the greater the propaganda service his humanitarian actions provide for less humane imperialists.

However, like the hundreds of liberal humanitarians who have served imperial interests before him, [4] Mortenson adopts an Orientalist approach to describe the people benefiting from his aid, thereby reinforcing the ‘civilizing’ development narratives that dominate the aid industry. So while Ali suggests that the diverse people who inhabit most of the Northern Areas of Pakistan — an area that features heavily in TCT, with the Baltistan region being the primary focal area — are Muslim communities that “have historically lived in relative harmony”; Mortenson instead conjures up an image “of a barren and backward land waiting to be claimed and tamed.” Not content on merely reproducing such harmful ‘aid’-inducing narratives, Mortenson “invokes fear by portraying the region as ‘wild’, ‘warring’ and steeped in ignorance, filled with ‘extremist madrassas’ that gave ‘birth to the Taliban’.” [5]

In addition to using language that both demands and legitimizes a Western intervention, Ali critically adds that Mortenson’s arguments are not based in logic. In fact they are patently incorrect, as the Taliban were not birthed in the region of the Karakoram Highway as Mortenson maintains. Thus Ali continues, to “claim that this Shia-majority region is the birth place of the Sunni fundamentalist, violently anti-Shia Taliban is simply absurd.” [6]

Instead, as is well-known by most people who do not rub shoulders with the imperial establishment, the origins of the Taliban “are more properly traced” to the CIA and Pakistan’s US-backed Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Furthermore it is an open secret that the “explicitly violent curriculum” that was to used in a select number of US-backed “madrassas was produced by the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and published in both Dari and Pashto through a USAID grant.” “Far from being a result of poverty, the mujahideen were produced through the mobilisation of tremendous wealth.” [7]

Mortenson’s “inaccurate, politically consequential” description of Pakistan as a hotbed of religious extremism and terrorism creates and sustains an imperial mentality that facilitates ongoing grevious damage to rural Pakistanis. As Ali observes, for “[i]f one must generalise about religious identity in the diverse rural regions of Pakistan, surely the conclusion would be the opposite of what is claimed by TCT.” [8] But unfortunately for the people of Pakistan currently being ‘helped’ by Mortenson and Company, such a conclusion would not justify his creation of schools for poor backward locals who are ostensibly at the mercy of the all omnipresent Taliban war-schools.

The only legitimate (anti-terrorism) solution for Mortenson is the construction of secular schools for the impoverished: consequently it follows (in his mind anyway) that all madrassas must be demonised — irrespective of the reasons why the small percentage of Pakistani children that are schooled at madrassas (3.8 per cent to be precise) are sent there.

In addition, by further “jumping to the conclusion that the rural, illiterate, madrassa-going Muslim is the key driver for terrorism, TCT fails to acknowledge the political grievances behind acts of terror such as 9/11, as well as the predominantly urban, educated backgrounds of those involved in anti-Western Islamist violence.” [9]

Following typical Orientalist conventions TCT provides an epic and inspiring tale of good versus evil, the West versus Islam, “in which the devastating effects of US interventionism in the region are erased”. The US is thus “rendered innocent” and so combined with the story’s additional (mis)focus on poverty and ignorance, the text implores that the West must intervene to help, once again enabling the West to take up the racist trope that is the white man’s burden. [10]

As Ali writes: “In a world where one of the richest, most highly educated nations [the United States] has been the cause of long-standing, systematic terrorism, it is both amusing and offensive to read that poverty and illiteracy are the ‘root causes’ of terrorism.” [11] Reflecting on this point later in her article, Ali observes how:

“If ‘the enemy is ignorance’ — as the title of a chapter in TCT proclaims — the cultivated ignorance of schooled US citizens has done far more to sustain processes of terror than the ignorance attributed to the rural, Pakistani Muslim in the text. Moreover, if ‘changing the culture’ through education is the reason behind Mortenson’s efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, one wonders: who will change American culture?” (p.551)

Certainly not books written by liberal imperialists like Mortenson.

Ali, compares TCT to another another tale of American humanitarianism, but this time in Haiti, the book being Mountains beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure The World (2003). The difference between the two biographical tales is immense, as Farmer’s book  “embodies a politicised and historicised humanitarianism”, which demonstrates how the “US military-corporate complex has led to the repression and impoverishment of Haitians.” Mortenson’s text on the other hand presents America’s lack of popularity in the Pakistan and Afghanistan as a “mere misunderstanding, stemming from ‘their’ ignorance — instead of their acute awareness of the hypocrisy and violence of US policy.” [12]

However, while Ali has not a bad word to say about Farmer’s humanitarian work, I would argue that his work likewise serves a vital means of perpetuating humanitarian imperialism, albeit from a far-left liberal anti-militarist perspective. This is because Farmer works hand-in-hand with the very same liberal imperialists who stand at the forefront of the humanitarian interventionist complex, individuals like George Soros, Bill Gates, and Bill Clinton. [13]

Either way Mortenson and Farmer are not in the same league as far as their usefulness to  imperialism, especially that of its militaristic forms. Indeed, TCT has become a guiding text for progressing the US military’s counter-insurgency operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan which under Mortenson’s instruction now utilize school-building as a means of fighting terrorism. Mortenson’s activities can be seen as a way of legitimizing military conquest; furthermore, the evolution of what “the counter-insurgency doctrine calls ‘armed social work’ — has blurred the lines between military warfare and civilian development.” [14]

In this way, the imperial discourse coursing through the pages of TCT…

“… helps tremendously in entrenching this 21st century form of colonialism. Linking terrorism to  poverty and ignorance provides a fitting logic for ‘changing cultures’ through ‘reconstruction’ activities such as education, which might also serve to create local consent for imperial ventures as it feeds into people’s desire for literacy and social mobility. It plays an even more important role in creating consent at home, by producing the image of a benevolent America and its military.” (p.554)

As Ali concludes, her critique of TCT is by no means meant to imply that books are not better than bombs: “But one has to assess the nobility of a humanitarian intervention within the larger politics that it represents and perpetuates.” [15] Given that Mortenson presents a narrative that is “devoid of history, power and politics” his work ultimately provides a comfortable and seemingly nonviolent vehicle for legitimizing the brutality of the status quo and imperialism.

TCT’s promotion of grassroots participatory militarism is far from new, and there is a well developed critical literature that recognizes the integral role that humanitarianism has served in the promotion of domination. Consequently by serving up such a toxic recipe book, in the guise of compassion, Mortenson’s text presents a message that is completely compatible with corporate power-brokers.

The insidious propaganda message he spreads is: A couple of ‘locals’ can be humanized, but there is no doubt about it the rest of ‘them’ are “pitiable and dangerous.” The war on terror has its faults, but rest assured (on Mortensen’s word) that thw war is necessary, and just needs to embrace a more culturally sensitive mode of combat. Thus TCT “has become implicated in a participatory militarism in which an ethnographically sensitive military strives to ‘listen’ and ‘build relationships’ to ‘serve people’ — in order to occupy better, and longer.”

Ali ends her article by recommending that: “What needs to be practised is not a hawkish, colonising humanitarianism but an ‘anti-colonial’,‘ historicizing humanism’ which acknowledges suffering but also the relational histories that have produced it.” [16] Promoting such an agenda will certainly involve hard work and commitment: Anyone for coffee?

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the
UK. His other articles can be accessed at


1. David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations — One School at a Time (Viking 2006), pp.541-2, p.552.

2. Relin and Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, p.542.

3. Relin and Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, p.543.

4. Richard Seymour, The Liberal Defence of Murder (Verso, 2008).

5. Relin and Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, p.544, p.545.

6. Relin and Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, p.545.

7. Relin and Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, p.545, p.549.

8. Relin and Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, p.546, p.547.

9. Relin and Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, p.548, p.549.

10. Relin and Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, p.549.

11. Relin and Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, p.550.

12. Relin and Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, p.551, p.552.

13. Michael Barker, “Caring For Haiti,” Swans Commentary, February 8, 2010.

14. Relin and Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, p.553.

15. Relin and Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, p.556.

16. Relin and Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, p.556.





Michael Barker recently stood as parliamentary candidate for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in Leicester East.

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