When we think of islam, we tend to think of the Middle East. But 80 percent of the world's Muslims live elsewhere, and in regions where they encounter half the world's Christians. If one wants to learn about the relationship between Christianity and Islam, there is no better place to begin. So Eliza Griswold spent seven years investigating what she calls the "torrid zone" to unpack the relations of the two great religions.The result is The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), "a beautifully written book, full of arresting stories woven around a provocative issue" (The New York Times).
Griswold is an award-winning investigative journalist and a fellow at the New America Foundation. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Harper's. She also has published a collection of poems, Wideawake Field. Mark Galli, CT senior managing editor, talked with Griswold about her impressions of Islam and Christianity in Africa and Asia.
The title of your book suggests that geography plays a large role in the religious tensions between Muslims and Christians.
The tenth parallel is not so much a specific line but a broader zone. In Africa, it marks the southern edge of most of the continent's 400 million Muslims, who live predominantly north of this line, in the northernmost third of Africa, which is dry land. Historically, as traders and Islamic missionaries traveled, they reached as far south as the tenth parallel. Where the tenth parallel began, so did tsetse [biting] flies, which carried sleeping sickness that killed off traders and missionaries, horses, and camels. Because of sleeping sickness, Islam largely stopped there.
When the European powers came, mostly during the 1800s and early 1900s—especially after 1885 and "the scramble for Africa"—colonial rule was established in places that had been hard to reach historically. Christian missionaries from these nations came with two great gifts, the two Bs: the Bible and the bicycle.
Many came simply doing what most missionaries do today, bringing the Word in a positive way to people's lives. But some came with the express purpose of stopping Islam as a rival monotheism; they focused their efforts along this southernmost edge of the Muslim world, explicitly along the tenth parallel, to stop Islam from winning Africa. A lot of the language we hear today from Christians about a global battle with Islam is nothing new. It certainly dates back at least 100 years.
This fault line is as sharp as it is because it's one of the most environmentally sensitive belts in the world. Along the equator, depending on the time of year, two winds meet—dry wind dropping from the northern hemisphere and wet wind rising from the south collide. When we look east, that pattern established the encounter of Christianity and Islam on the island nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The trade winds carried Muslim and Christian traders, and Muslim and Christian missionaries, to the same beaches, islands, and ports, where they began to fight over control of what was then the spice route. It's largely an encounter driven by wind and weather, and, again, centuries of migrations, whether on ships or on land.
What are the demographic realities along the tenth parallel?
I started with a single statistic: Four out of five of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims live outside the Arab world. They are not living in the Middle East. They're living in Africa. They're living in Asia. And they live along this fault line, where they meet nearly half of the world's 2 billion Christians. These two worlds meet along this 700-mile-wide band that jigs and jags. The tenth parallel is a broader way of looking at what happens when religions meet on the ground.
We've heard the oversimplified narrative about the clash of civilizations. Well, what actually has happened over the 1,500 years these two religions have coexisted? Before I went to Ethiopia, I did not know that in A.D. 615, when the prophet Muhammad was chased out of his hometown of Mecca by his own people, he took most of his followers 210 miles away, to the city now known as Medina. He also sent a dozen of his followers to the safest place he knew: the court of a Christian king, the king of Abyssinia, which today is Ethiopia. These followers of Muhammad went to the king and earned their asylum by telling the king the story of the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus underneath a date tree, which is the story from the Qur'an.
The king gave them land in East Africa. For a thousand years there was never trouble between Muslims and their Christian neighbors, because the Muslims were so grateful for that safe haven.
So my book is an attempt to show that religiosity is not always a problem, that it's not always something divisive.
Some argue that Islam is happy to get along peacefully with Christianity if Islam is in the majority, in a position of power. Is that your reading?
My concern about Islam is actually the opposite. When there's a Muslim minority, in my experience, it has more readily gotten along with the Christian majority. It is less likely to stir the pot compared with most minorities.
Our concern should be about how political Islam, when it comes to power, treats Muslim minorities. For example, look at the Ahmadiyya. Here is a sect within Islam that's been declared heretical in Pakistan, and these people suffer.
One of the most overlooked and important human rights issues facing us today is the treatment of religious minorities, period. One area where we need to pay the most attention is how Muslim-majority countries treat minorities in their midst both within Islam and within other religions, like Christianity. That is a crisis. We are seeing people, both Christians and Muslims who hold minority beliefs, fleeing Muslim countries at very high rates.
Your book reveals deep divisions within Islam. How do those divisions shape Islam's relationship with Christians?
After seven years of watching the two religions across cultures and continents, I've come to believe that the most overlooked religious clashes today are those inside religions, not between them. So what does that mean? Well, there are different kinds of conflicts inside of religions. There are, for example, ideological confrontations between progressives and traditionalists, over who's a true believer and who is not. That's no less true in Islam.
There are two sections of the Qur'an. There are verses revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca, and there are verses revealed to him in Medina, where he was a warrior statesman. The Meccan verses tend to be more peaceful and inclusive. The Medinan verses are more violent; they are about jihad and include verses that strictly prescribe [rules for] people's daily lives.
Historically Muslims have paid more attention to the Medinan verses, those later verses, which are more martial in nature. But a group within Islam argues for a more progressive interpretation that gives priority to the more peaceful Meccan verses. Emory University Islamic scholar Abdullahi An-Na'im argues that places where Islam is growing fastest outside of the Arab world have more progressive forms of the faith. So this is a big division within Islam.
Or, look at the divisions between Shi'a and Sunnis. Sunnis are the vast majority of the world's more than 1 billion Muslims. Shi'a believe their leaders have to be tied to Muhammad by blood; Sunnis believe that blood is less important than how history has played out. Then you have the Sufis, which compose the majority of African Muslims. The most frightening emerging division within Islam is between the Sufis and the Sunnis, because Sunni hard-liners are getting more aggressive about saying that Sufis are not true believers. There's potential for more bloodshed.
What are some of the nonreligious factors that make Islamic-Christian relations more violent?
Every religious conflict I witnessed in seven years of reporting has some kind of secular trigger. Those include fights over land, over water, over oil, over political elections—even over cocoa, the principal ingredient in chocolate, in Indonesia. When chocolate prices spiked worldwide, so did violence between Christians and Muslims in Eastern Indonesia.
The 10-40 window has been one of the most inspiring ideas in Christian missions in the past two decades. How do Muslims perceive this initiative?
It terrifies them. Muslims do not understand Christian proselytizing. Even the most conservative Christian evangelists I know understand that in preaching to others, whether it's me or a Muslim, it's giving that person who's hearing the message a choice. It's not about forcible conversion. That message does not reach the Muslim world at all. Muslims understand conversion to be linked to imperialism. Proselytizing by the Christian West is nothing new, and it has never been a friendly experience for them. So they hear the 10-40 window as the obliteration of the Islamic world, and they go nuts.
What has led them to believe that Christian evangelism is coercive?
Events particularly after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when Christian missions became explicitly linked to Western imperialism. Missionaries did not understand themselves as agents of imperial powers, and many times they understood themselves to be working against those forces. But that message never reached Muslims. They saw the Christian West as a monolith. In the same way we see Islam as a monolith, they understand the Christian West as a monolith that's out to get them, and it's out to get them in secular ways, through imposing corrupt democratic governments that undermine their Islamic law.
We occasionally hear about Christians attacking Muslims, especially in Nigeria and Indonesia. What do Muslims in general consider the greatest recent atrocity perpetrated by Christians against Muslims?
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
They perceive those as not the attack of the United States but of a Christian nation?
For them there's no difference between the two.
How about vice versa: What do Christians worldwide consider the greatest Muslim atrocity perpetrated against Christians?
The attack on the World Trade Center.
Even to Christians in Africa and Asia?
Absolutely. One Nigerian pastor told me that Nigeria had had its own 9/11 a few days before the U.S. did; he was talking about a very bad attack by Muslims against Christians on September 1, 2001. There is widespread relief among African Christians and Asian Christians who have long been a minority that the U.S. is finally getting it: Now that American Christians have been attacked, they'll understand how violent Islam is. This is a Christian understanding in much of the world—that the Christian West is at war with Islam. That's not just a Muslim understanding.
Some observers believe the way forward is for Muslims and Christians to become more moderate. By that they seem to mean that each group should give up their exclusivist claims (that their religion is the true one) and their attempts to convert the world.
That's a naïve assumption. For many secular leaders, religion is an idea that the world will grow out of. But the world isn't becoming less religious; it's becoming more religious.
But many people believe that if you can't get Christians and Muslims to abandon transcendent claims and mission, they will never stop fighting.
Well, I would point to a pastor and an imam in northern Nigeria. Each is a self-avowed fundamentalist in his own faith; each believes the other one is going to hell. Yet they have worked together successfully for the past 15 years to end religious violence in their hometown of Kaduna.
Pastor James Movel Wuye has one arm. The other arm was lopped off by Muslim soldiers when Christians and Muslims were fighting to the death over control of a local market. In their younger days, both Wuye and the imam, Muhammed Nurayn Ashafa, understood themselves to be, respectively, Christian and Muslim soldiers for God. Eventually each had a faith experience
For example, the pastor went to a conference sponsored by Pat Robertson. He says that the conference might have had other agendas—it wasn't as if Pat Robertson taught him to love Muslims, he clarifies. But after this conference, he said he understood that he couldn't really talk to people who were different unless he came to love them.
The imam already had approached him to stop fighting, and the pastor decided slowly, slowly that he could work with the imam to rebuild his town, because fighting between Christians and Muslims had devastated Kaduna. The pastor says that because he had lost an arm in the fighting, even when they started to work and travel together teaching peace, there were times when he thought about picking up a pillow in the night and smothering the imam.
This is deep difference! But they've been able to overcome their personal differences to work for mutual existence.
Do they still give each other space to evangelize for their faith?
They do. I write in the book about going with the pastor to do his TV show, which he gives in Hausa. Hausa is the language of Muslims in northern Nigeria. He's preaching to Muslims on TV, trying to convert them. The imam does the same thing. He brings Christian orphans into his house.
Still, evangelization is probably the stickiest issue for them. Proselytizing for Islam is most frequently bringing fallen Muslims back into the fold. It's usually not across faith lines. That's one thing that gets Muslims up in arms faster than anything. They believe Christian proselytizing to be cultural genocide, an attempt to wipe out their religion, and that's why they respond so aggressively to it.
So the issue of evangelization remains really sensitive for Muslims.
It's more sensitive than we can understand, because it's tied to the idea of Western imperialism. The two are the same thing to Muslims; they appear to be deliberate attempts to undermine their power and individual and collective identity, to wipe Islam off the world map.
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The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam is available on ChristianBook.com and other retailers. Wideawake Field is available from Amazon.com and other retailers.
Check out CT's special section on Islam.
Previous book interviews include:
Faithfully and Politically Present | How and why Michael Gerson believes Christians should not abandon the public square. (October 29, 2010)
Joni Eareckson Tada on Something Greater than Healing | Now facing breast cancer and chronic pain, the author, speaker, and advocate talks about the blessings of suffering. (October 8, 2010)
The Apostle of the Golden Age | Classics scholar Sarah Ruden says extraordinary things happen when you read Paul alongside other ancient literature. (September 22, 2010)
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