At The Boston Globe, I have a piece about the different ways in which the West (the U.S., really) and the Muslim world (and Europe) approach blasphemy.
At the Boston Globe Ideas section, I wrote about the history of Timbuktu.
Originally appeared in The Daily.
by Cullen Murphy
“Inquisition” is among the least cuddly words in the English language — an odd state of affairs, when you consider that some of its linguistic cousins are perfectly lovely. The ultimate Latin root means simply to ask a question, and its English relative “inquisitive” is something we typically laud children for being. But to be the object of any sort of inquisition, whether headed by a hellbent bureaucrat or a man in a scarlet cassock, is very bad news for you indeed, with a guarantee of psychological discomfort and strong hint of the physical sort as well.
I visited Nag Hammadi for the IHT and found an Egyptian Wild West.
Read my story here.
Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
By Janet Reitman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 444 pages, $28
The Church of Scientology, founded in 1950 by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, is not a church that turns the other cheek. In the early 1990s, the Internal Revenue Service went after it for taxes; Scientology unleashed an enfilade of lawsuits and complaints that eventually brought the IRS to heel and won the church tax exemption. In “Inside Scientology,” Janet Reitman says that when the church was charged criminally in 1998 over the death of a parishioner, the organization overwhelmed the medical examiner in Clearwater, Fla.; within two years she had resigned and later suffered a nervous breakdown. According to Ms. Reitman, David Miscavige, the church’s leader, called these acts a ” ‘holy war’ of litigation.” If the English language has a more frightening phrase, I haven’t come across it.
Carl Franzen and I produced a file on Karol Józef Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II) for The Daily. Check it out here.
Originally appeared in The Daily.
In December 1945, an Egyptian peasant named Muhammad Ali Samman and his brother wandered away from their village in central Egypt, hoping to scoop up a few buckets of soft dirt to fertilize his crops. Digging next to a large boulder, Muhammad Ali found a mysterious earthenware jar about 3 feet tall. He and his brother backed away from it, worrying that it might contain a genie. Then, on further reflection, they considered that it might contain gold, and they smashed it apart, thereby releasing a force in some ways more disruptive to traditional Christianity than any genie could have been.
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.