Eliza Griswold explores the fault line between Christianity and Islam in The Tenth Parallel.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 23 2010 7:01 AM

Where Islam and Christianity Collide

A reporter braves the terrors of the 10th parallel.

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Eliza Griswold's The Tenth Parallel is a tour of what the late historian Samuel Huntington called "Islam's bloody borders," although Griswold has little use for either Huntington or his theories. She shies away from attributing violence or virtue to any particular religion and limits her focus to the African and Asian places where the world's largest and fastest-growing religion, Christianity, competes for souls with its second-largest and second-fastest-growing, Islam.

The 10th parallel, 700 miles north of the equator, has always been a religious frontier. It is where Arab armies and traders were halted by the sudd, the tsetse-infested band of swampland that feeds the Upper Nile. British imperial authorities in the Sudan encouraged Christian missionaries to go south of that line and forbade them in the Muslim lands to the north, for fear they would provoke insurrections. The 10th parallel is also where, a century ago, the German evangelist Hermann Carl Wilhelm Kumm built a string of fortified missions stretching across the continent.

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Lately, technology and climate have made this an unstable boundary. Camels could not penetrate the sudd with Mohammed's revelation, but the Internet and al-Jazeera can. As Africa warms and the Sahara spreads, the largely Muslim residents on the southern shore of the desert are being pushed into contact—and sometimes violence—with their Christian neighbors. Christian evangelists, meanwhile, describe the line as the southern edge of their prime mission territory. The non-American world between the 10th and 40th parallels—roughly the northern half of Africa plus the parts of Asia from Afghanistan southward—contains 2.7 billion people, a third of whom are Muslims and only 3 percent of whom are born-again Christians. Where Christians see themselves as spreading the Word, Muslims see Christians as muscling in on their turf.

Typical of the flashpoints that result is the Nigerian town of Yelwa. In 2002, insults at a polling station led to a rock fight between Christians and Muslims. In 2004, young men hollering for jihad herded Christians into a church and burned it down, along with a nursery school, killing dozens. Two months later, Christians from the area massed around Yelwa. They killed 660 Muslims and burned a dozen mosques.

Griswold has done an astonishing volume of reporting—in Yelwa itself and in similarly remote and dangerous parts of Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Her interview subjects include some of the cruelest people on earth, along with their most indomitable victims. Griswold is a poet as well as a reporter, and she uses a literary, even lapidary, language to treat matters that most writers address analytically. Of a terrible flood near the Nigerian provincial capital of Jos, in which mothers were able to save some of their children by placing them in high trees, she writes: "I have pictured those babies again and again; they come up behind my eyes without bidding, in silhouette, like a woodcut, with an eggplant sky behind them, and greasy water licking at the tree trunks."

Griswold's treatment of inter-religious conflict is more intimate and nuanced than those we see on television and in tabloids, which tend to slot interview subjects into a familiar narrative of villains, victims, and the clash of civilizations. Her book, by contrast, is baggy, anecdotal, humane, and occasionally even funny. In the Nigerian city of Kaduna, an abattoir of inter-religious violence, the Muslim neighborhoods are called Baghdad and Afghanistan and the Christian ones are called Haifa, Jerusalem, and Television. After the tidal wave in the heavily Muslim Indonesian region of Aceh, the local morals police, the Vice and Virtue Squad, busted young couples making out at sunset on the beach, warning them: "You'll cause another tsunami!"

Interviews are the heart of Griswold's project. Speaking to the North Carolina-based Rev. Franklin Graham about his missionary work in despotic Sudan, Griswold wonders "how it could be worth evangelizing a woman who could be killed by her family for converting to Christianity." He replies with a passage from the Gospel of John (10:28): "And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand." Griswold comes from a Christian family herself, but of a different kind. Her father is the very liberal Anglican bishop Frank Griswold. She describes her upbringing as one of "Passover Seders, Jesus Christ Superstar, and doing the Crop Hunger Walk." She is patient, though, in dispelling misconceptions about the eschatological Protestantism that flourishes on Christianity's frontlines with Islam. One such misconception is that evangelists seeking to bring about the "end time" by spreading the Good News expect to convert the world. For the most part, they do not. The Second Coming will happen when everyone has heard the message of Jesus, they believe, not when everyone has accepted it.

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