Where Islam and Christianity Collide

A reporter braves the terrors of the 10th parallel.

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.

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.

In Indonesia, Griswold spends time with Ibnu Ahmed, a midlevel commander in Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a particularly fractious and sadistic terrorist group responsible for the Bali bombings of 2002. Ahmed was jailed after JI carried out a wave of cold-blooded murders of Christians on the island of Sulawesi, one of the pockets of heavily Muslim Indonesia where Christians live. He remembers this period as a glorious time: “Fathers used to come to the prison to marry their daughters off to us.” But when Griswold herself drives around Sulawesi with him, the island is reeling from an incident in which JI-linked jihadists decapitated three girls walking to school and delivered the head of one of them to the local church in a plastic bag. Jemaah Islamiyah now fills the locals, Muslim and Christian alike, with disgust, and Ahmed is constantly ducking beneath the dashboard to avoid being recognized. “Ibnu Ahmad could go almost nowhere on the island,” Griswold writes. He has a hard time explaining why he is proud of his time as a terrorist. “Muslims were being oppressed,” he says. But he is almost incoherent and admits his brain resembles a “broken computer.” He ekes out a living selling Naturaid products, which Griswold refers to as the South Pacific equivalent of Mary Kay cosmetics, and spends his spare time listening to “Imagine” and “Stairway to Heaven” over and over on his headphones.

Ahmed’s story is emblematic. Varied though the landscapes she visits may be, Griswold’s interviews draw her reliably to the conclusion that pretty much all of this conflict is “senseless”—or at least that it does not make sense in the way its perpetrators think it does. “Religion legitimizes a conflict over resources and political hegemony,” she writes, and hammers home this point on at least a half-dozen occasions. Having identified her subject as the “fault line between Christianity and Islam,” she spends much of the book insisting that the conflict is not really between Christianity and Islam. But dwelling as she does in the realm of conversation and witness-bearing rather than analysis, she never marshals an argument about how it is that power comes to eclipse faith in these countries. Is faith more virtuous than power but weaker? Or is it a pretext for power-seeking from the get-go?

Griswold, who is undoubtedly one of the most physically courageous reporters on the planet, seems to fear that her research might wind up ratifying some crass narrative accessible to Franklin Graham’s followers—or to any American yahoo with a television set. She is too quick to hunt for parallels between Christianity and Islam. True, both religions are having “reawakenings.” Both proselytize. Both are refuges against globalization on the one hand and corrupt governments on the other. And if you were, say, the scholar Mircea Eliade or the yogi Bhagavan Das, you might see typological similarities between certain Sufi practices and certain Pentecostal ones.

But as far as questions of power are concerned—the kind of questions that matter along the 10th parallel—this parallelism should not be taken for granted. With the exception of the Philippines and (partially) Nigeria, the lands Griswold is describing are under Muslim rule, and it is Muslims who call the tune there. Infringements on religious freedom for Christians are routine, which is most striking in the places that are least violent: Malaysia, for instance, where Muslims are given subsidies of up to $3,000 to marry into (and convert) the non-Muslim Orang Asli culture, or prosperous Indonesia, where, as Griswold puts it, “in lieu of church buildings, many Christians gather to worship in houses, malls and high-end Chinese restaurants” and where she describes the Rev. Ruyandi Hutasoit, who runs a harmless-sounding Jesus-Will-Make-You-Rich kind of ministry, as “public enemy number one.” 

There is no Christian equivalent—either for sophistication or influence—to the body of revolutionary political thought that arose among the Sunni Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the middle of the last century, or in Iran in the Age of Khomeini. To say this is not to confuse Islam and Islamism, or to imply that Islam is always and everywhere a violent religion. Nor is it to deny that the scriptural barriers to Christian violence are notoriously easy to breach. In Africa, Griswold notices, Christians draw out the metaphorical implications of Luke 22:36 (“And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one”). But Islam is equipped, as Christianity is not, with explicit contemporary doctrines of political violence. Where Christianity has grown more militant in the areas Griswold describes—for instance, through the voluntaryconversion of the Nigerian “border pagans” who have for centuries been strong enough to fend off Muslim slave traders and Islam itself—it has been in a derivative and defensive way.

Religion is always more powerful than it looks. There is a special danger to it. The most profound observation in this book comes from a left-wing Catholic priest, Peter Geremia, who works in the heavily Muslim Philippine south and has received death threats from Christian radicals for speaking out against their paramilitary anti-Muslim gangs. “If you take the name of God to kill, you become fear,” he says. “The more atrocities you commit, the more power you have.” Almost nothing could be more disturbing than this. Common sense and common decency tell us that, when dealing with inter-religious conflict, what is important is to avoid the sort of retribution that creates new grievances and spurs a cycle of violence. If the Rev. Geremia is right, then forbearance is likely to be unavailing. When religious justifications enter the mind of a perpetrator, the will to violence has already achieved an unstoppable momentum.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.