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The 10th Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold

September 6, 2012

Anyone who lived during the 20th century might believe that the Cold War, or perhaps the two wars with Germany, were the defining conflicts of our time. Eliza Griswold might change those opinions.  Here she surveys a much older, more deep-seeded worldwide conflict: the clash between Christianity and Islam. She selects six hotspots—Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines—where this conflict has shaped and continues to shape the world.

In the places Griswold surveys, neither Islam nor Christianity is native. They were introduced from the outside at some point in history by a missionary, an invading army or explorer. They grew roots and, like an invasive plant species, began to choke out local religions through force or marketing. Then they came into conflict with each other.

Most of these locales have become flashpoints for the conflict because they are impoverished, some wrecked by natural disaster, others war-torn, some suffering from long-term political persecution. But the net result—an unstable or failed government or economy—creates a vacuum that religious extremism often fills. Joining an extremist group is not a difficult choice when it comes with the promise of food for your family’s table.

There are different degrees of extreme in religious extremism. Griswold gives us examples of Christian missionary groups, now with the structure and financial backing of mega-corporations, targeting the world’s poor, starving and war-stricken countries because the disadvantaged are the easiest to convert. This might seem predatory, but Franklin Graham (Billy’s son) sees it differently: “I would never take advantage of them for personal gain, but you better believe I will take advantage of each and every opportunity to…save them from the flames of hell.” It’s the same on the other side of the divide—it’s not just a competition to gain followers, it’s a competition to save souls.

At the far end of the spectrum are suicide bombings, beheadings, torture and oppression. Remove the specifics of belief, and the commonalities between the two sides are striking. Both are outwardly focused, concerned with what others believe, and how others behave. Both are obsessed with growth through conversion. And, importantly, both sides believe they are at war with the other, engaged in a competition for survival. They both believe they have god on their side. That is why they will employ violence if necessary and can readily recite scripture that justifies it.

In Somalia, when a shipping crate full of Bibles is discovered, it is treated like we might treat a shipping crate full of explosives showing up on our docks. Religion has been weaponized. Sometimes it is countered with other religion, sometimes with actual weapons. Griswold’s six case countries show a wide range of religiously-justified oppression, intimidation, violence and all-out warfare, at times reaching the level of genocide. What form the extremism takes seems to depend mainly on the balance of power in the situation.

It was surprising the dispersion of the Muslim-Christian conflict as well as how long of a history it has. Griswold does a great job of balancing historical context with present day moments, of personal conflict with big-picture themes. But perhaps the greatest strength of her book is the access she gains and the courage she displays in following her story. She hangs out with some really bad dudes. But she rarely opines. She more often paints a very lucid, if oftentimes complicated and multi-layered, picture and then allows the reader to make of it what they will.

This was not a book I would have chosen on my own. It was suggested by a reading group. But I’m glad I read it and feel like my eyes have been opened to the immensity of a world-defining conflict, and the degree to which the fight over religion is interwoven with the struggle for land, resources and wealth.

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