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Questions for Eliza Griswold, author of "The Tenth Parallel"

Eliza Griswold traveled to some of the world's most dangerous places to explore the relationship between Christianity and Islam.

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Anyway, I spent a day with Fakcit Alexander [in the aftermath of a flash flood]. There was no more bridge to get to where she was stranded in this town. To get to her I basically rode on the edge of a rusted oil barrel. There was no other way to get there and there was no way for her to leave. Her children, all eight of them, had contracted malaria. She had a baby on her back and the baby’s name was Cheldon, which, in her language, means “I’m begging for more from my Creator.” Cheldon had very bad malaria and his survival was very uncertain. Fakcit has lost everything, even her shoes. To survive, to safeguard their children, the people in this town had actually put babies and children up in the trees [where they waited for two days] because it was the highest point during a flash flood. That experience really, really sticks with me.

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Q: You are a self-described “PK” – preacher’s kid. What impact do you think your own childhood, your own experience had on your reporting?

A: I grew up in a household where questions of faith and intellect were raised on a daily basis so I definitely have always wondered, how do smart people believe – and there are many [believers] among conservatives and liberals alike – how do they take these stories to be true? So I certainly came from that background of these two intertwined threads and that’s how I came to wonder about the question of whether all fundamentalism leads to violence. I thought that I would find among the fundamentalists – whether they were Christian or Muslim – that their beliefs would be entirely different and entirely incomprehensible [to me]. But that is not what I found. What I found was that I had more sympathy and more ability to understand their different points of view than I had imagined. And I think that that had something to do with my upbringing.

Q: There’s a lot in the book about the negative impact of religion on society. Were there places you traveled where you saw a positive impact?

A: Oh, for sure! Many, many, many. Because in places, especially in Africa, where national borders began so arbitrarily – they were just colonial borders, imposed superficially – governments meant nothing to many people. What I have found is that religious institutions come to supply some of the good things. They safeguard some of the rights that people need. They safeguard people’s rights to clean water. We’ve certainly seen, after the tsunami [in Thailand], as we see in [the flooding in] Pakistan right now, there are definitely militant groups that come in and take advantage of natural disasters. But there are [also] religious groups that come in – be they Christian or Muslim – to do some very important kinds of work that no other secular [nongovernmental organizations] or states can do.

In many cases they bring a moral order, they allow for a morality, a central understanding of how people should treat each other that, without their presence, is completely unimaginable. That’s not always true, because in most places there was preexisitng religion before Christianity and Islam arrived. And in many cases that preexixting religion also protected individual rights. [But] in some places where there has been a total breakdown of the state it is definitely true that the religious institutions supply the moral backbone that nothing else does.

Q: You traveled to some of the world’s most dangerous places. Were you afraid?

A: Oh yeah! There were many, many times in which I was very afraid.

Q: Did you feel like you were risking your life?

A: No. Not at all. I went to the places where these two religions meet. And I went to the fault line – the most jagged places – intentionally. But there were very few times when I was more at risk than the people who live with this conflict every single day.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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