Troubles on the Tenth Parallel: Muslim-Christian Conflict

By Frederick Quinn

No question facing the Anglican Communion today is more explosive that the present and future of Muslim Christian relations. Eliza Griswold’s new book, The Tenth Parallel, Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) is a must read for anyone seriously wishing to explore this subject. Along this latitude line seven hundred miles above the equator, sometimes described as part of a wider “an arc of instability,” live more than half the world’s Christian and Muslim populations. They interact both peaceably and in conflict in impoverished, unsettled conditions that were this skilled journalist’s beat for nearly seven years. The Fault Line’s s deteriorating ecological political, economic, and demographic tensions are often explained in the language of religious conflict, and the award-winning American writer set out to explore these issues first hand.

As populations expand, cropland shrinks, and global warming produces unpredicted devastation through drought and floods, millions of the world’s most vulnerable people are left living in stressful conditions. It is easy to assess blame for such tensions in inflammatory religious language, but the realities are far more complex. The author concludes, “Religious strife where Christians and Muslims meet is real, and grim, but the long history of everyday encounter, of believers of different kinds shouldering all things together, even as they follow different faiths, is no less real. It follows that their lives bear witness to the coexistence of the two religions – and of the complicated bids for power inside them – more than to the conflicts between them.”

Christian fundamentalists in northern Nigeria and Islamic jihadists in Indonesia are some of the people Griswold interviewed during time spent traveling by rattling vehicles through Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Griswold has the gift, found in only a handful of journalists on global issues, for compressing telling detail into compact sketches. One instance: she returned to Nigeria’s flood stricken Middle Belt in September 2007 shortly after torrential flooding of the Wase River had caused thousands of people to flee in panic. They lifted possibly two thousand babies into nearby trees, the only possible place of protection, hanging the children from branches. “They spent two days without food or water. Some were silent. Others cried from hunger. Below them, in the slick, black water, cows, goats, pigs, and a human bodies floated past.”

The wider Anglican Communion knows little about Islam, and Muslim-Christian relations remain an almost unexplored subject. The Tenth Parallel represents an important step in remedying this lack of information and perspective on another major world religion. The quality of Griswold’s writing and the author’s perceptiveness of human and public policy issues invites comparison with the Polish travel writer, Ryszard Kapuscinki, and Rory Stewart, whose The Places in Between and other works on Afghanistan and Iraq, have provided vivid, on-the-ground accounts of life in other desolate-yet-hopeful settings.

Frederick Quinn is the author of “The Sum of All Heresies,” the Image of Islam in Western Thought (Oxford University Press, 2008) and a contributor to Episcopal Café.

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