The Tenth Parallel

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Faultline Between Christianity and Islam, by Eliza Griswold, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 336 pages

Shortly after the September 11 2001 attacks on the US, the Christian fundamentalist preacher, Franklin Graham, reportedly declared in an NBC television interview: “Islam is a very evil and wicked religion.” Two years later President Bush invited him to lead a religious service at the Pentagon.

In The Tenth Parallel, Eliza Griswold quotes Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian member of al-Qaeda who has called on Muslims to support the war against America “and its slaves” and to be steadfast “in this new Crusader battlefield which America and its allies and the United Nations are waging against Islam and Muslims”. Griswold, daughter of an American Anglican Bishop, award-winning investigative journalist and Fellow of the New America Foundation, writes: “between the equator and the tenth parallel two groups with distinctly different cultures and cosmologies unavoidably face off against each other”.

In 2003 Griswold set off on a series of remarkable journeys through what she sees as the frontline in this war between Islam and Christianity, stretching from the western coast of Africa to the easternmost part of Asia. Over seven years she visited the Middle Belt of Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia, crossed to Malaysia and Indonesia and on to the Philippines, taking in many other places along the way.

These starkly different countries have been linked to Islamic Arabia for centuries by trade routes. Later those traders were followed by Christian European colonists and imperial armies. With the recent revival of militant Islam, competition for the tenth parallel zone, says Griswold, has turned into religious warfare.

Griswold puts herself discreetly in the thick of it, seeking out and interviewing militants and their victims. I am writing this sitting in Somalia, but I would think twice about going to Mogadishu to interview someone like the militant Islamist, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, as Griswold did. She is brave.

The book consists of dispatches in the American journalistic style. Griswold moves from a close-up portrait of a key player to view the surroundings as she makes her way up forest paths, down swirling rivers and across deserts and mountains. She widens the lens further to take in some history, and then tightens focus to highlight some alarming quotes and observations.

At times Griswold’s language is careless – her soul is a “lifeless slab of liver”, for example – and her history questionable – I would not use “hero” to describe General Gordon’s role in the Opium War in China. But the pace and colour of the book ensure that these are minor irritants.

Griswold’s assertion is that these clashes are fundamentally religious; a global contest for hearts and minds based on opposing theologies. But as she digs deeper, other more earthly factors – ethnicity, culture, land disputes, trade routes – provide stronger motives for war, rather undermining her case.

“The conflict had little to do with religion per se and everything to do with competition over who controlled the local government and, by extension, the economy,” she writes about the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, implying that the wars in Indonesia can be analysed as a battle between natives and settlers who just happen to be Christians and Muslims. I was left with the impression that the so-called great clash of civilisations is merely an aggregation of myriad local political and social conflicts.

Take Nigeria. If the recent battles in Jos, the city in the mixed area known as the Middle Belt, were religious in origin why is not the whole of the Middle Belt, indeed the whole of Nigeria, in flames? The dispute in Jos, a city of immigrants from the Christian south and the Muslim north, is about land and politics. They do not fight over theology but they make God and Allah their totems, justifying and supercharging their economic and political dispute.

Had she visited Ethiopia – also within the tenth parallel – Griswold would have found followers of the Judaic tradition living alongside Christians and Muslims as they have done for centuries. Ethiopians rightly point out that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all branches of the same religion; all “People of the Book”, the Bible. Although a Christian empire, Ethiopia is not prone to religious disputes because the political and social divisions do not coincide with religion. The differences between Christians, Muslims and followers of a Judaic tradition there seem no greater than the division between Methodists, Baptists and the Church of England in Britain.

What I missed in The Tenth Parallel was a deeper interpretation by Griswold of what people were telling her. But she does give us one glimpse of her own inner journey. Despite her deeply Christian upbringing, Griswold has gradually lost the certainty of its exclusive, absolute truth and now accepts the cloud of ambiguity in which most people live.

In 2003 she travelled to Sudan with Franklin Graham who later sent her a Bible, which she carried with her for years afterwards. Then, one day, absentminded, she left it on a train, and with it appears to have gone any respect she once had for the messianic evangelicals.

Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society and author of ‘Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles’ (Portobello)

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