August 2010

Guy Cunningham

nonfiction

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold

The word “witness” comes up a lot in Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel. The book explores conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Africa and Asia, and adherents of both faiths repeatedly talk to Griswold about their desire to be witnesses for God, or witnesses on behalf of the suffering of others. In one example, an American missionary is described as believing “his duty as an evangelical Christian was to share Jesus’s message -- to bear witness -- no matter the cost.” 

In many ways, Griswold’s writing comes from a similar place. Instead of being a witness for God, however, she tries to be a witness on behalf of His followers. She focuses her attention on a little-discussed belt of conflicts running along the tenth parallel, where mostly Islamic cultures north of the parallel “collide” with a mostly Christian south.

Beginning in Nigeria, Griswold moves east through Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. She introduces readers to each region, balancing historical background with portraits of life in the present day. Along the way, she speaks to a wide range of figures -- including Gracia Burham, an American missionary once held hostage in the Philippines by the notorious Abu Sayyaf terrorist organization; Hussein Adid, son of an infamous warlord and a former US Marine Reservist now at the center of Somalia’s political maneuvering; and Sudanese extremist Hassam al-Turabi, onetime patron of Osama bin Laden.

Griswold’s commitment to nuance, however, means she also speaks to many people outside the missionary or extremist communities. For example, in Nigeria, she seeks out James Movel Wuye and Muhammed Nurayn Ashafa -- a Christian minister and Islamic imam, respectively. Both once used religion to stir up violence. Ashafa goes so far as to concede, “We planted the seed of genocide, and we used the scripture to do that.” It cost both many friends and countryman -- Pastor James even lost an arm during one confrontation. Though both remain avowed “fundamentalists,” they have dedicated themselves to preventing further violence in their homeland, seeing it as essential to their own communities’ survival.

These kinds of stories give Griswold’s reporting a greater accessibility. She also allows some of her own personal narrative to creep in. Most interestingly, we learn that her father, Bishop Frank Griswold, served as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church until 2006 (Eliza Griswold, however, is not particularly religious herself). By alerting the reader to her own backstory, Griswold helps guard the reader against any unconscious biases in her reporting. Throughout the book, she comes across as genuinely committed to seeing the region on its own terms, motivated by a desire to introduce its troubles to Westerners.

Beyond that, she also offers real insight into the region’s troubles. Her observation that Al-Qaeda’s inability to gain a true foothold in Somalia indicates that, “Weak states, not failed ones, serve terrorists best,” has genuine implications for US foreign policy. So does the idea that Islam is used by the wealthy of the Philippines’ Mindanao island to prop up “feudal” traditions there -- a point illustrated when the militant Pakila Datu Zaid claims that “all” the land “taken” from the Islamic Moro people rightfully belongs to him, and him alone. As Griswold observes, the organization he leads, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, is “simply his private army.” Far from a religious revolt, he is leading a grab for personal wealth, and exploiting the faith of his countrymen to do it.

This is not a unique case. Many of the conflicts along the tenth parallel are rooted in economic, not theological, issues. In Malaysia, the competition between Christian and Muslim missionaries to convert the Orang Asli people (who practice traditional religions) -- a process one anthropologist likens to “cultural genocide” -- has heated up because the Orang Asli homeland is in forests that are being cut down to meet global demand for palm oil. Competition for another oil -- petroleum -- fuels much of the “religious” conflict in Nigeria. In Griswold’s view, much of the upswing in fundamentalist Christianity and Islam along the tenth parallel is rooted in anti-globalization and national-liberationist impulses, as people react to resource depletion and economic exploitation by both the West and corrupt local governments.

However, injecting religion into these conflicts may change their character. For example, when a Malaysian political leader named Kairy Jamaluddin calls his nation “a one hundred percent Muslim society,” the implication is that the nearly forty percent of his countrymen who practice another faith are not a part of “society” -- which is rather chilling. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to worry that this kind of mentality might encourage violence toward religious minorities (whether that is Kairy Jamaluddin’s intention or not).

Perhaps the most thought-provoking exchange in the book comes between Griswold and the famed American evangelical minister Franklin Graham. Griswold presses him on his missionary work in the Sudan, where converting to Christianity could entail risking capital punishment. His responds in emphatic language:

“So I keep my mouth shut,” he said, “don’t tell them about what God has done for them, keep them in spiritual darkness, they’ll live out their life, and they’ll die and they’ll go to hell. Or I tell them about God’s son, and if they receive Christ, then I know that their soul is in his hands. Now could their life come to an end? Yes. All of our lives are going to come to an end. Some of us just a little sooner than others.”

This is a pivotal scene precisely because Griswold details Graham’s work bringing medical care to the suffering Sudanese people—which he insists is not contingent on patients’ religious views -- and sites his organization, Samaritan’s Purse, for “one of the largest and most effective” responses to the tsunami in Indonesia. Graham is not indifferent to human suffering. He simply believes that missionary work is worth risking the loss of life. But it is precisely because faith is so important to some people -- more important than life itself -- that religious conflicts can be so difficult to solve.

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold
Farrar Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0374273189
336 Pages