Graeme Wood

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The Tenth Parallel

Originally appeared in The American Scholar.

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, by Eliza Griswold, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 317 pp., $27

The 10th northern line of latitude cuts across Africa and southern Asia, marking an arc of dirty little wars from Nigeria in the west to the Philippines in the east. Now and then these persistent conflicts get stitched up with a peace treaty or a ceasefire. But the 10th parallel is a seam between the Christian and Muslim worlds, and wounds infected with religion tend not to stay healed for long.

Journalist Eliza Griswold draws the title of her book from this latitude line, which she travels from east to west, with deviations of a few degrees in Asia, from Nigeria to Sudan to the Philippines (masochistically omitting the 10th parallel’s transit of the Western hemisphere, where she could have taken a break in Aruba). If the conquering of the American West followed a blood meridian that washed across the prai­rie toward the Pacific, then the 10th parallel is the line of control in a much older and more static conflict between Muslims and their local rivals, generally Christians. In a few places the religious nature of the conflict is explicit, as between Sudan’s Islamic government and its aspiring Christian splinter-state, or between Nigeria’s Muslim north and Christian and animist south. In others the religious split provides something like a context for national rivalry, between Christian Ethiopia and the alliance of So­mali Is­lam­­ists, for example, and the ecumenically crazy Eri­trean government.

The portrait is one of constant religious strife. In Somalia the warfare is open and brutal. But even in areas of relative calm, such as diverse and economically prosperous Malaysia, the two faiths chafe to a frightening degree. Griswold recounts the legal battle that Malay activists manufactured over the use of the Arabic-derived Malay word Allah (God) in translations of the Christian Bible. Muslims demanded the Christians find another word, because using this one—long understood to be religiously neutral in the Malay language—would confuse Muslims and imply that the Christian God was a viable alternative to their own. (At the same time, the government denied the request of disaffected Muslims to convert to Christianity.) As for the third Abrahamic faith, Griswold is mostly silent—though when I visited Malaysia earlier this year, in Kuala Lumpur I spied a banner that threatened harm to “BANGSAT YAHUDI,” which Google translated as “Yiddish bedbugs,” but which anti-Semitic idiom would probably render as “bloodsucking Jews.”

The chapters about each conflict are rich with description and character, if curiously short on narrative. The Griswold method is to find a fascinating person in a war zone (a Nigerian Muslim feudal potentate with a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh, an ex-U.S. Marine and cha-cha dancer who returned to his native Somalia to lead his clan in the civil war) and to write at length about them and their place in the conflicts. The method works, and one is left with the impression that the arc of religious war zones is studded from end to end with colorful and intelligent characters whose good qualities do next to nothing to foster peace. Indeed, one of the great strengths of Griswold’s reporting is that she honestly portrays the depth of each side’s conviction and the poverty of the claim that “mutual understanding” would encourage peace rather than more war.

Fans of the late Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash-of-civilizations” thesis—that culture and religion, rather than ideology, will motivate future conflict—may find vindication in the geographic breakdown Griswold has chosen, which corresponds to Huntington’s coarse bisection of Africa into an Islamic civilization up top and an “African” one on the bottom. They are half right. On one hand, relatively few African conflicts feature much common cause between Christians and Muslims. On the other hand, the religious convictions of the southern Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf and Nigerian Islamists seem to be the sum of what those groups have in common. To call them united as a civilization would be bizarre at best, as Griswold shows. The Christians, too, are impossibly diverse, to the point that an aide-de-camp of one of Griswold’s interview subjects, Franklin Graham, the sanctimonious son of Billy Graham, gets testy and threatens to eject Griswold when she fails to tell him that her father is the presiding bishop of the rapidly liberalizing U.S. branch of the Episcopal church. These fault lines within religions do not draw blood, but they are real enough to confound the clash-of-civilizations thesis.

What to do about the madness? The Tenth Parallel doesn’t bill itself as a prescription, so it might be unfair to ask what Griswold’s own advice would be. One wishes, though, for at least the beginning of an acknowledgment that the perpetrators of war in all cases share an abnormal religious zeal. Even in peace, zealots find justification for odious behavior: Griswold talks with a Muslim doctor in Nigeria, for example, who refuses to inoculate children against polio, believing the vaccine to be part of a Western plot to sterilize Muslims. Meanwhile, a Christian doctor affiliated with Franklin Graham’s organization in Africa tells her that the group delays treatment to non-Christians, so the evangelists have more time to save their souls. (Do the doctors also triage dying Christians into a lower-priority category than dying Muslims, since the Christian souls are secure?)

The world does not need another atheist manifesto or a book-length moan about religion as the root of all evil. But it is remarkable that Griswold can build such a finely wrought case that a swath of the world is beset by religiously sponsored misery without asking outright whether a little less religion might be a good thing.

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