As some of you might remember from one of my recent “Library Loot” postings that after seeing Eliza Griswold’s 2010 book The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam in the university bookstore across from my office that later I found it impossible to resist grabbing it after recently spotting it on the shelf at my local public library. After reading the book’s back and inside cover endorsements from trusted notable such as Reza Aslan, Robert Wright, Lawrence Wright and Philip Jenkins I had a feeling Griswold’s book would make a worthy addition to my reading stack. After finishing her book early this morning, I was not disappointed. Although it took me a while to get into the flow of her writing, when it was all said and done I thought she did a very good job describing and explaining the challenges and conflicts between Christians and Muslims inhabiting the “Tenth Parallel”: a zone 700 hundred miles north of the equator and possessing a huge human population with emerging markets, rising regional powers and turbulent politics.
Griswold, a poet, international correspondent and current fellow at the New American Foundation takes us on a journey stretching from Nigeria and Sudan to the Horn of Africa and finally to the Southeast Asian nations of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Thousands of miles from Europe and the Americas, the region is nonetheless home to 60 percent of the world’s Christians. Considered neither Arab nor Middle Eastern, the area is still home to over half the world’s Muslim population. Complicating this already tense and tenuous relationship between the two religious groups is the competition for resources, political maneuvering on the part of self-serving autocratic governments, the blessings and curses of globalism and the inability of many developing nations to deliver the adequate services and overall security that we in the West have long taken for granted.
I thought I was pretty-well read when it came to the people of this tumultuous zone and thanks to Griswold, I learned more than a few things. I’d known for years that the ongoing conflict in Sudan had pitted the Muslim north versus the Christian and animist south but I had no idea the origins of the present conflict date back to the 19th and 20th century British and their reluctance to allow Western missionaries to operate in the Muslim north and thereby confining all Christian missionary activities to the south. While I’d read in newspapers like The New York Times that Sharia law had been implemented in a number of Nigerian states, the rationale for doing so was more practical than religious since many Nigerians saw Sharia as the only mechanism to provide a fair and decent legal system, in light of the nation’s corrupt and inefficient courts and political system, (just as many Nigerian Christians are flocking to Pentecostal “Prosperity Gospel” churches in hopes that their fervent beliefs, prayers and above all, financial offerings will grant them the economic success they desire that the Nigerian state is unable or unwilling to deliver). In some areas of the Tenth Parallel, geography itself helps dictate religious belief as in Indonesia where Muslims tend to be coastal dwellers and Christians tend to be back country folk, since the rural Christians are the descendents of animists or other tribal believers who did not have extensive contact with outsiders until the arrival of Western missionaries in the mid 19th century.
But it was Griswold’s chapters on Malaysia that opened my eyes to a number of things that were new to me. While I knew the country was largely Muslim, multiethnic and considerably advanced economically, I had no idea the central government has quietly and deliberately promoted Islam to its aboriginal population. Much like Saudi Arabia and other Arab states it prohibits Christians from proselytising to Muslims and apostacy is a criminal offense. Lastly much like China, the nation is heavily involved in Sudan’s oil industry and has provided a considerable amount of military aid to that country’s human rights violating government.
Just as Jared Cohen’s book Children of Jihad could be considered a timely book due to the winds of political change blowing across the Middle East, much can be said for Griswold’s book. With south Sudan finally achieving independence with last month’s referendum after decades of fighting and geostrategists starting to appreciate the growing importance of the Indian Ocean region, (I have Kaplan’s latest book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power currently on hold from my public library; by the way, if you get a chance, click here if you would like to see his recent book-related lecture courtesy of Book TV), Griswold’s book is yet another book that provides superb background to events briefly mentioned today’s news-grabbing international headlines.