'The Tenth Parallel:' Sometimes, It Seems Little Can Be Done to Avert Religious Conflict

Rayyan Al-Shawaf
"Cross and Crescent" - artist unknown

Democracy, for all its advantages, can actually exacerbate religious tensions by granting animosity free rein.

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Length: 336 pages
Author: Eliza Griswold
Price: $27.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-08

In The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, Eliza Griswold, an award-winning journalist as well as a poet, tackles the disturbing and escalating phenomenon of Christian-Muslim conflict around the world. The book takes its title from a latitudinal designation. “The tenth parallel” explains Griswold, “is a horizontal band that rings the earth seven hundred miles north of the equator.” Living cheek by jowl along lengthy stretches of this band, principally in Africa and Southeast Asia, are hundreds of millions of Christians and Muslims. Griswold’s book recounts her journeys among such people in Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The author combines academic research with a reporter’s discriminating eye to uncover the root causes of various conflicts between Christians and Muslims, the specifically religious character of which she often reveals to be a somewhat belated addition to the equation. For example, in Nigeria, which is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims, changing global weather patterns such as increased drought and flooding are forcing Muslim herders from the north to drift south and encroach on farmland owned by sedentary Christians, thereby sparking clashes that sometimes spiral into religious mini-wars.

Nevertheless, Griswold does not shy away from identifying religious zealotry (often in tandem with ethnic and racial chauvinism) as an important factor in some of the bloodiest conflicts. In Sudan, it isn’t simply the fact that the south is oil-rich that has spurred successive regimes to unleash murder and mayhem on southern Sudanese seeking increased freedoms, but the established practice of Arab Muslims oppressing the non-Arab and non-Muslim peoples of the country. Recently, in western Sudan, the long-marginalized inhabitants of Darfur, who are Muslim but not Arab, have faced persecution following a push to have their historical grievances addressed. As Griswold puts it, “all of Sudan’s wars boil down to a central Khartoum-based cabal battling the people at the peripheries.”

Global religious trends sometimes play a role in fanning the flames of local disputes. On more than one occasion, Griswold points out that Christianity and Islam “are in the midst of decades-long religious reawakenings—global revivals that, like their namesakes in America and Britain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, are calls to return to an idealized past.” Such fundamentalism, which provides spiritual sustenance for many, can also cultivate conflict. When a clash over resources or politics between members of different religions is seized upon by zealots, religion becomes both an explanation for the dispute and a reason for its perpetuation.

Griswold makes many other fascinating observations. For example, though this is no longer the case, when Western Christian missionaries initially came to southern Sudan and other underdeveloped lands in the 19th century, “[t]he missionaries’ monopoly on health care and education… was such that anyone who resisted evangelization risked being left out of the modern world entirely.” She goes on to demonstrate that predominantly Muslim states in Africa and Southeast Asia have adopted this strategy in order to further increase Islam’s sway.

However, it doesn’t always work. In cases where Islam or Christianity is closely bound up with an oppressive power structure, embracing another religion becomes part of the struggle for emancipation. “In much the same way that Christianity served as a vehicle of liberation for Sudanese Christians,” Griswold points out, “Islam provided a means of self-determination for Filipino Muslims—a source of power in opposition to the Christian-supported government.”

Sometimes, it seems that little can be done to avert religious conflict. Democracy, for all its advantages, can actually exacerbate religious tensions by granting animosity free rein. This is essentially what happened in Indonesia (the world’s most populous Muslim country) with the fall of Suharto’s dictatorial regime in 1998, and the end of military rule in Nigeria in 1999.

There is at least one major structural problem with this consistently informative and unusually eloquent account of contemporary global religious conflict. Griswold seems unwilling to confront the significance of religious intolerance in majority-Muslim countries. She dutifully reports on various forms of discrimination against non-Muslims in Sudan, Indonesia, and Malaysia, but does not draw any overarching conclusions about Islam in theory or in practice, instead emphasizing the amorphous nature of both Islam and Christianity, as well as the increasing divisions in their ranks. Yet insofar as differing treatment of non-Muslims in majority-Muslim countries is concerned, the divergence lies only in varying degrees of discrimination. The reverse is not true of majority-Christian countries, especially those in the West, where Muslims enjoy equal rights in theory and often in practice.

Perhaps the only uniform aspect of otherwise differing forms of intolerance in majority-Muslim countries is the de facto (and often de jure) ban on Muslims converting to another religion. Again, the reverse does not hold in majority-Christian countries. Even in the Philippines, where Griswold documents long-entrenched anti-Muslim political policies (introduced by the country’s American colonial masters in the early 20th century), and Ethiopia, which she (too) briefly mentions oppresses its Somali Muslim population, non-Muslims can and do convert to Islam.

In the 21st century, ensuring that non-Muslims enjoy the same rights and privileges as their Muslim compatriots in countries where Islam predominates demographically and is often politically institutionalized should be a central preoccupation of the Muslim world. Unfortunately, it is not. For this reason alone, no writer on contemporary global religious affairs should miss an opportunity to bring the issue to the fore. Indeed, Griswold would have enriched her already valuable book considerably by doing so.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut, Lebanon.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.