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

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.

RATING 7 / 10
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