Where Christianity and Islam Collide

In The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, acclaimed investigative journalist and poet Eliza Griswold treads the geographical and ideological middle ground where the world’s largest faiths meet. But as Griswold reports, many places along the latitude seven hundred miles north of the equator are less a middle ground than a battlefield, where global political forces and trends are pushing Muslims and Christians towards increasingly extreme versions of their faiths.

But this is not another Clash of Civilizations. Griswold describes in grim detail the perils of life in this contested zone—from the Muslim-Christian massacres days before September 11, 2001 in Jos, Nigeria to Jemaah Islamiyah’s deadly brand of Islamist terrorism in Indonesia. But she renders these stories compassionately through personal anecdotes and the stories of believers “whose religious convictions were emphatic and elusive,” whose relationship to their faith “slipped out of [her] easy distinctions.” In doing so, Griswold delves into the gray areas of both faiths and explores not only the conflicts between Islam and Christianity but the ways and places in which they coexist. She quotes a Nigerian pastor who has chosen to join forces with an imam—“his former mortal enemy” from the city of Kaduna, a frequent site of religiously motivated bloodshed in recent decades: “We have to find the space for coexistence.”

Citing esteemed scholars, local journalists, religious leaders, and members of militant religious organizations in six countries lying astride the tenth parallel, Griswold grapples with the local and global politics of the collision of Christianity and Islam. But she also explores the many factors that continue to raise the stakes of the collision higher and higher—the war on terror and American foreign policy vis-à-vis the Muslim world, climate change and resource conflicts, to name a couple of these elements.

Religion as guiding principle

In places along the tenth parallel like Somalia and Sudan, Griswold argues, religion and its guiding principles:

“[provide] a more practical rule of law than the government does. [They] lay out a social and moral code that governs human interaction, and supplies a context for suffering and poverty, constructing a group identity through which followers can hope to secure their worldly needs, and find some certainty about the hereafter.”

It follows that in such places, religion may be the only guiding principle, the only social, moral, even legal code to abide by. Somalia, for example, has been a “failed state” since 1991; this is a place where the presence of the state and accompanying service provision is virtually nonexistent. Griswold shows how the story of the rise of al-Shabaab—an Islamist militia currently wreaking havoc with horrific efficacy across Somalia and now outside its borders (the group claimed responsibility for last month’s bombings in Kampala, Uganda)—is both local and global in nature. Proxy wars of various scopes and varieties are no doubt a trend in the countries Griswold profiles, but her in-depth examination of each context avoids generalization and oversimplification.

In Indonesia, Griswold looks past the easy characterizations of the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, questioning the idea that the country is transforming into a modern secular democracy by arguing that the classic traits of a weak state—poor governance, corruption—are leading Indonesian Muslims to delve deeper into religion “instead of secular society…to resolve social questions, including women’s roles in contemporary society.”

Ancient v. modern

Another theme woven throughout the book is the way in which ancient or earlier forms of the two religions differ from the modern, “ecstatic” forms of the faiths: in the case of Islam, fundamentalism and martyrdom through a global and technologically savvy jihadist network, and in the case of Christianity, evangelicalism and Pentecostalism. Griswold hops between the megachurches on the outskirts of teeming Lagos, to the underground headquarters of Jemaah Islamiyah in a wealthy Jakarta suburb. Here, there, and in between, Griswold finds support for an argument that she makes at the outset: Christianity and Islam are both “in the midst of decades-long revolutions—reawakenings—based on effervescent forms of worship.”

Perhaps the phenomenon of seeking “direct experience of God” is one way people transcend their everyday circumstances in place where life is not merely difficult, but is instead a daily struggle for survival. It would be inaccurate to generalize, but Griswold shows this to be the case in Mogadishu, and I’ve seen it for myself in Sudan. I currently live south of the country’s “front line,” contested area, Abyei which Griswold profiles through the story a local southern Sudanese chief who knew the fate that awaited him and his people when she was interviewing him in the spring of 2008. In May of that year, chief Nyol Paduot and his people were forced to flee for their lives when northern Sudanese troops razed the nearby town of Abyei.

Shouldering all things together

The part of Sudan I am in right now is the site of yet another proxy war, different from the one in Somalia, but with reminiscent undertones. In Somalia, the Shabaab do the bidding of the broader Al Qaeda network and are supported by this global movement. In Abyei, Sudan, the on again, off again local warring parties—Arab, nomadic cattleherders and sedentary black Christians and atheists—are, as Griswold writes, “pawns of their respective governments,” former warring parties themselves who are uneasy partners in an internationally-brokered peace agreement signed in 2005.

The Tenth Parallel delves into those places where ecstatic forms of Christianity and Islam have arguably, necessarily, become extremist versions of the faith. But in these “peripheries” along the rough geographical boundary between the religions, Griswold suggests that “exclusive claims on truth tend to call forth their opposites.” In other words, there is hope that extremism will be contested by the moderates of both faiths. Griswold quotes a Malaysian activist who works for a local NGO protecting women’s legal rights who told her: “Moderates can no longer afford to be silent.”

By consistently referencing the geographical aspects of life along the tenth parallel—“the steep angle of the light,” a climactic zone called the “catastrophic belt”—Griswold keeps the theoretical, theological aspects of her inquiries grounded in the here and now realities for the millions of Muslims and Christians living in Africa and Asia living along this line of latitude. This is what makes this book hard to put down: “the interwoven stories of those who live within this band, and whose religious beliefs pattern their daily perseverance.”

While it would be easy to draw negative conclusions from this book about the ways in which Islam and Christianity are currently interacting around the globe, it would be impossible not to have faith about the future of the world’s interlocking religions after Griswold’s profiles of individuals of different faiths who are “shouldering all things together,” “bear[ing] witness to the coexistence” of religions, as believers have done for centuries.

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