Line where faiths competeBy Marlin Jeschke
On my desk is The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, by Eliza Griswold, published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2010, 336 pages, $27.
Written by an award-winning journalist, this book gives an account of the author’s travel and interviews in six countries that fall roughly along the 10th parallel North, three of them in Africa, three in Asia.
Griswold’s focus is Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. She notes that Arabic Islam comprises only a small fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.
Her reports are based upon an impressive range of travel and number of interviews, quite a few of them with Islamic jihadis whom the CIA would no doubt love to get its hands on. Some of these contacts involved risks, but the author’s identity as a woman reporter, even though American, afforded her access and a measure of safety.
It is a glimpse into a world of clandestine connections whose parties have complementary interests: for the reporter to get an insider view; for a partisan to get his cause heard.
In most of these places Islam and Christianity have coexisted for centuries — until the modern era of colonialism and Christian missions. Griswold has done her homework and draws attention to the colonial and Cold War legacies that cast their shadow over current conflicts. She observes that religion is often a cover for other factors, “roles played by oil, weather, war, colonial interests and clan convictions.” In Nigeria, for example, the expanding Sahara is driving Muslim cattle herders south and into conflict with Christians. In southern Sudan and the Philippines, parties to the conflict may be “more concerned with oil than either justice or jihad.”
On this fault line, Muslims and Christians compete for converts. Conversions and defections go both ways. In the Somali, Malaysian and Indonesian fronts Muslims hold the advantage. In the Philippines, Christians do. Both sides see it as a zero-sum contest: One side’s gain is the other’s loss.
And despite the appeal to religion, the rules of religion are too often left behind, as in kidnapping for ransom in the Philippines. In fact, says Griswold, Islam and Christianity “meant whatever anyone wanted [them] to.” Though not offering many numbers, Griswold’s reports reveal that thousands of lives get sacrificed in the attacks and retaliations perpetrated by both sides, especially in Nigeria.
The author has interviewed the former missionary Gracia Burnham, who with her husband, Martin, was kidnapped by Muslims in the Philippines and held for over a year before getting rescued by a government militia. Gracia was shot in the leg, and her husband was shot to death.
In her epilogue the author notes once more the complexities of the issues on the fault line. Of the many believers she met, both Christian and Muslim, “Every time I thought I had them classified, they slipped out of my easy distinctions… . [It was] a talent of postcolonial life, evidence of adaptation by people who have had many different categories foisted on them by outsiders… . It had moved far beyond the binary divisions between Saved and Damned, Good and Evil, Us and Them.”
Griswold examines the Christian-Muslim fault line with objectivity, insight and understanding.
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Goshen (Ind.) College.
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