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.

Antonin Kratochvil
Over the course of seven years, journalist Eliza Griswold traveled to Nigeria, the Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to report on "the fault line between Christianity and Islam."

In journalist Eliza Griswold’s own words, “I went to the places where [Islam and Christianity] meet. I went to the fault line – the most jagged places – intentionally.” Griswold chose the 10th parallel, the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator, where more than half of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims live, as do 60 percent of the world’s 2 billion Christians, as a point of observation from which to report on relations between Christianity and Islam in Africa and Asia. In the course of the reporting collected in “The Tenth Parallel,” Griswold spent seven years traveling in Nigeria, the Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.This week I had a chance to speak with Griswold about her reporting.

Q: So much of what you write about in your book is the story of conflict between Christianity and Islam. And yet, as you note, in many of the places you visited there was peaceful coexistence between the two religions for centuries. Why now are we seeing this conflict?

A: For a couple of interlinked reasons that have to do largely with population growth. [The 10th parallel] is the knife edge of where the world’s populations are growing the fastest and religion is also growing the fastest. We’re seeing an increase both within Islam and Christianity [and the forms of these religions that are growing the fastest] ... tend to be the most radical and the most effervescent. And when those forms rub up against each other, that tends to cause conflict.

Q: Why is there a resurgence of fundamentalist spirit just now in both Christianity and Islam?

A: The cause is almost impossible to determine and I would say it doesn’t have one cause at all. In fact, what’s going on is that what we’re seeing is a truth that’s long been the case, which is the interlinked reality of the world’s religion. It is the world’s religion, and not the world’s weather, that links us to one another, whether we like it or not. We’re definitely seeing spikes of a more fervent kind of faith. Is there one determining factor? No, there is not. Definitely both for Christians and for Muslims there’s a heightened desire to have a closer relationship with God, one that isn’t mediated by the church and its rites or in a mosque with an imam. And it’s those direct personal experiences of God that are the underlying cause of revival on both sides.

Q: Do religions cause conflict or do they simply excuse it? Would the conflict be there anyway – and religion is just a way of drawing up sides?

A: I don’t think it’s possible to tell when a secular conflict ends and religion begins. In the religious conflicts that I saw, most of them had a secular trigger, whether it was a crop of cacao plants, water, land, oil – all of these factors had something to do with the religious conflict.

Q: Your book depicts – sometimes in devastating fashion – the impact that these religious conflicts can have on society’s most vulnerable members – often women and children. Was it hard to see this firsthand?

A: Yes. There was a Christian woman named Fakcit Alexander who lived in a Muslim town in Nigeria. The way that it works in this town is that the Christians live at the edge of the city. That’s pretty common in some of these heavily Muslim areas in North Africa. Well, the edge of the town also meant the bank of a river. With environmental degradation there were people squished on smaller and smaller pieces of land up to the edge of the river. They were using land right up to the edge of the river – basically they were using flood plains to live on. And that’s exactly what it sounds like – sometimes it floods.

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.

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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