On the face of it Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam is a book whose content is summed up accurately by the title. The author recounts her experiences in various African and Asian lands which straddle the tenth parallel north of the equator: Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. It is a story told through personal narrative, the author’s, and the numerous people who are themselves embedded in larger forces welling up from below and descending from above. One can accurately describe The Tenth Parallel as a travelogue. But it is also a time machine, as Griswold surveys worlds which are a clear simulacrum of those which we know only through works of history; empires of faith, the lands of God’s platoons. As such, The Tenth Parallel is also a narrative which describes an alien world of ideas, outside of our conventional categories and classes. Many of the preconceptions and expectations which we bring to the table are “not even wrong” in the lands Griswold traverses, and what has been learned must sometimes be unlearned. This is not Newtonian Mechanics, where a cold and objective eye surveys the terrain and reports back positions and trajectories across space and time. An awareness of the author’s viewpoint is critical, while the viewpoint of her sources are plain. Finally, your own presuppositions and experiences as a reader shape the ultimate “take home” message which Eliza Griswold stitches together across her disparate sojourns.
As for the author, she is informs you about the details of her background repeatedly. Judging a book by its “cover” you see a young white Christian woman tasked to report on the turmoil in the lands of black and brown folk, many of whom are not Christian themselves, and many of whom are ardently Christian. But Griswold’s vantage point is more nuanced, she is the daughter of Frank Griswold, a prominent cleric in the Episcopal Church of America, who was a participant in the consecration of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. This event has come close to rending asunder the Anglican Communion, of which the second largest district is covered by the Church of Nigeria (though arguably Nigeria has more practicing Anglicans than Britain, the largest district). In many ways in terms of core values I suspect that Muslims and Christians in Nigeria share more with each other than they do with Eliza Griswold. Her meetings with Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, always seem fraught with tension because it is as if Eliza Griswold’s very being serves as a witness for the liberal mainline Protestant tradition in the face of the muscular and unsubtle evangelical Protestant Christianity she observes all around her. The author’s own subjective viewpoint as a liberal Christian (at a minimum culturally, she published no precise statement of faith) interweaves with the story she tells much more subtly in most contexts than it does when she engages with Graham and his coterie. It is as if they bring with them an awareness of American culture wars and to some extent force Griswold to play her part. The author’s peculiar perspective is always there and should never be forgotten. It does not take much reading between the lines to infer that Eliza Griswold is not sympathetic to the methods of Western evangelical Protestants who believe it is their Great Commission to bring the whole world to their own faith. This is not a conclusion which is “wrong” or “right” in a conventional sense, but derived from a set of values, which the reader may or may not share.
The bigger canvas on which The Tenth Parallel is painted is is the idea of the 10/40 Window. This is the broad swath of the World Island between the tenth and fortieth parallels north latitude. These are the lands of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and traditional Chinese religion. The vast majority of the world’s non-Christians reside in this zone, and in the past generation Western evangelicals have focused their efforts on spreading their message from Morocco to China. All of the specific conflicts explored in The Tenth Parallel can be viewed through a 10/40 lens, though Griswold is obviously surveying the world of Islam more specifically.
The author emphasizes that the conflict between Islam and Christianity in these lands is often an old one, and she illustrates this point by retelling the story of the first age of global muscular evangelical Christianity, that of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But even that is simply a later episode of a millennial story. Globalization is often conceived of in terms of economic factors of production moving across borders, but in the pre-modern world it was more often ideas which spanned political units of organization. The expense of moving goods and services across civilizational boundaries meant that such international commerce was restricted to high-value luxuries. But ideas could flow easily because they were theoretically weightless for each marginal unit of meme.
Prior to the rise of Islam there was a Buddhist Age in Asia. From the south of India, to Transoxiana, to Japan, Buddhists traveled via the Silk Road. The monk Kumārajīva, who was instrumental in translating many Buddhist texts into Chinese, was reputedly the son of an Indian Brahmin and a Tocharian princess, a native of the Silk Road city of Kucha. In the 7th century the young Anglo-Saxon Christian Church was headed by an Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, who was born in Anatolia, lived under Persian rule, and finally fled the Islamic conquests. The Christians of South India have a long history of communion and connection with Middle Eastern Christianity, first the Persian Church, and later the Syrian Orthodox Church. The current phase of religious globalization is far less of a departure from the norm than the current age of mass migration, economic specialization, and the movement of commodities and manufactured goods.
In fact the ultimate roots of the story in The Tenth Parallel go back to the Axial Age, over 2,000 years ago, with the emergence of what we used to term “higher religions,” forms of supernatural belief which are embedded in institutions, have philosophical scaffolding, and are formalized and flexible enough to move across tribal boundaries in a coherent manner so as to maintain their integrity of identity. That is, religious ideas don’t simply transfer across groups, religious systems do. In our more sensitive age these are referred to as world religions, or organized religion. Christianity, Islam and Buddhism are exemplars. In the past Judaism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism all had variants which transcended tribal boundaries, though these are traditions which have more or less re-tribalized themselves of late. These tribe-transcending religious systems have served to smooth the paths of travelers who could appeal to the solidarity of belief and practice across differences of ethnicity or geographical origin. The lives of Ibn Battuta and Xuanzang both attest to this. Without the charity and hospitality of co-religionists they would never have been able to complete their treks. But what brings us together can also divide, and the boundaries between world religions are often fraught with misunderstanding and incommensurability of religious foundations. Quantitative historian Peter Turchin terms the regions where world religions meet “meta-ethnic frontiers.”
Meta-ethnic frontiers are a touchy subject today. “Right thinking people” tend to dismiss the importance of the concept, it being too associated with Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. They reject the idea of the clash of civilizations, and assume that the book which gave rise to the term aligns with their preconceptions of the central argument. Most of the criticisms of Samuel Huntington’s work, imperfect and yet thought provoking, are of a kind where I strongly suspect that the critic hasn’t read the original, but rather is engaging nth hand expositions of the thesis. Many of the enthusiastic exponents of the clash thesis also have clearly not read Huntington’s work, which warns against neoconservative enthusiasms and suggests the necessity of a practical modus vivendi in a multipolar world riven with fissures of values. Macrohistory is generally slotted into one’s ideological preference, in large part because the principals in the discussion aren’t genuinely interested in academic issues but are looking for rhetorical devices. Academics can themselves get caught up in the game. Consider, Historian challenges assumptions about religious conflicts:
Associate professor of history Brian Catlos has spent years researching how Christians, Muslims, and Jews interact.
“Where my research and data leads, though not intentionally, is to debunk the notion of a conflict of civilizations–a conflict between groups of people who identify themselves as Christians, Jews, or Muslims and who articulate their struggle as a result of ideology and national identity,” said Catlos. “Rather what’s really behind history and contemporary human affairs is the interest of relatively small groups who often interact without regard to ideologies, national, or religious boundaries.”
Catlos observed that engaging in this type of historical research is his way of testing common assertions that there is a fundamental and irresolvable conflict between Christian and Muslim, or Jewish and Muslim, cultures. He points out that throughout history, there has been a widespread phenomenon of elites interacting with whoever will serve them best.
Such grand “common assertions” are propounded by people who are stupid. The stupidity can at the root be due to ideological preference (i.e., they know that reality varies with their ideology, but they ignore reality), ignorance, or simple lack of cognitive ability which would allow for the ability to construct models with greater subtly and nuance. It’s just as ridiculous as the inverted narratives which presuppose that religious conflicts are simply aberrations against a long history of interfaith amity. The “interfaith” movement as we understand it today is to a great extent a product of a historical moment. In particular, its roots lay in the ecumenical strand within liberal Protestantism, which eventually expanded to Christianity more generally, and finally to all world religions.
Brian Catlos’ book, The Victors and the Vanquished: Christians and Muslims of Catalonia and Aragon, 1050-1300, does refute a simple narrative of religious conflict, but, I do not believe it refutes a complex narrative of religious conflict. It is plainly wrong to assert that in every case a Muslim sides with a Muslim, and a Christian sides with a Christian. Reality is not carved out of such stark simplicities, else all scholarly endeavors would have transformed themselves into physics. There are exceptions even in cases where meta-ethnic solidarity was in clear evidence. In 1683 the Habsburg monarchy managed to obtain the support of many of the German princes who owed notional fealty to them and the crown of Poland in their battle against the Ottomans. Much of the rest of Christian European sentiment was on the side of the Hapsburgs, a fact which is notable because of the relatively recency of the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants in Germany. This set of conflicts had polarized elite opinion on the continent and in the British Isles. But by the 1680s the tide had turned and Europe wearied of internecine divides in the face of the Ottoman attack. The unanimity was such that France was vilified in some circles because of its tacit alliance with the Ottomans, despite the fact that the French relationship with the Ottomans stretched back centuries. This was to a very large extent a religious war in the minds of many despite the fact that it could also be interpreted in a more conventional framework of how geopolitical conflicts emerge out of structural parameters.
But there were Christians who traveled with the advancing Ottomans to batter themselves against the walls of Christendom. When it came to the Eastern Orthodox, who had long been Ottoman subjects, and had little necessary affinity for Western Christianity, this may seem somewhat unsurprising. But there were Protestants who fought for the Ottomans. Protestants such as Thököly Imre fomented the conflict, and supported the Ottomans, against their fellow Christians. But the historical context of this alliance makes it entirely comprehensible why these Protestants had little fellow feeling for their Roman Catholic brethren. For decades the Austrian Habsburgs had persecuted Protestants and slowly re-Catholicized their domains by means soft and hard (on the soft side, inducements so that prominent Protestant families would return to the Roman fold, on the hard side a choice between expulsion or conversion in the towns). A grand Christian front against Islam was all well and good in the abstract, but for Hungarian Protestants their proximate existence as a people was dependent on a Muslim shield against their aspirant overlords, who they knew would have reimposed Catholicism upon them. The present day religious map of Hungary reflects these historical accidents. Culturally about ~25% of Hungarians are of Protestant origin, and they are concentrated in the eastern regions of the Magyar lands which were not re-Catholicized because they were under Ottoman hegemony. In contrast, what was Royal Hungary, became overwhelmingly Catholic thanks to the success of the Hapsburgs and their confederates in grinding down the Protestant majority to triviality.
What is important is not to deny systematic biases and long term trends when you average out the seemingly random set of alliances which emerge between peoples and individuals based on immediate contingencies. It could be that in most cases alliances between polities don’t line up neatly on civilizational or confessional lines, but, over centuries non-trivial systematic biases matter. They matter insofar as the Reconquesta succeeded despite the infighting between Christian potentates. The rivalries were put aside at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. Over most of Iberia’s history in these centuries because of geographical proximity it may have been that most of the conflict was between Muslims and Muslims, Christians and Christians. But when evaluating on a civilizational scale if these lower level conflicts “average out,” then the systematic biases which track meta-ethnic identities can be highly significant. In the course of a few years it is ridiculous to speak in civilizational terms, but in the course of centuries it is precisely the boundaries of civilizations which wax and wane.
These intergenerational ebbs and flows of affinity, ideology and identity, are at the heart of Eliza Griswold’s narrative. In the early 20th century black Africa was operationally a “pagan” continent. Muslims and Christians were thin on the ground, generally restricted to narrow elites. The vast populace still adhered to their traditional tribal religions. As an example, Senegal, which is ~90% Muslim today, was probably only minority Muslim in 1900. Though it has arguably been part of the Dar-ul-Islam for a thousand years the peoples to the south of the Senegal river were only lightly touched by Islamic civilization. In the 20th century modernization, the rise of mass culture and communication, has produced a much deeper Islamicization in African societies where organized religion had previously been a feature of narrow urban elites. But as Eliza Griswold notes the Muslims were not the only ones at the march in Africa. European Christians saw in the “Dark Continent” a treasure trove of souls to be won, so that today Africa is split between Muslims and Christians, with Sub-Saharan Africa being majority Christian. Only in enclaves in coastal West African nations does traditional religion manifest in the public sphere, organizing itself as Vodun. Elsewhere the God of Abraham reigns supreme.
Africa’s adherence to world religions has resulted in the believers aligning themselves with international concerns. Griswold points to this when observing that the religiously split city of Kaduna has Christian neighborhoods with the names Haifa, Jerusalem, and Television, while the Muslim neighborhoods are Baghdad and Afghanistan. What has Kaduna to do with Jerusalem? In concrete terms not much, but symbolically a great deal, and for humans symbolism has concrete consequences. The story Griswold tells throughout The Tenth Parallel is the integration of local concerns and tensions with global dynamics. In Nigeria Islam is closely connected to the Hausa and Fulani identities, while many of the southern ethnic groups are staunchly Christian (though many of the Yoruba have converted to Islam as well). Islam has a long history in Nigeria’s north, and clearly the southerners associate it with the past depredations of Muslim states. In Islamic law it is not legal for Muslims to enslave Muslims (though there are a fair number of “work arounds”), so the fact that West African Muslims were on the border of the Dar-ul-Islam meant that they had a ready export to the rest of the Muslim world in the form of black slaves. Long before Europeans were purchasing Africans “sold down the river,” African Muslims were selling slaves across the Sahara. With the rise to dominance of Christianity in southern Nigeria there was now an organized rival to Islam as meta-ethnic identity. A meta-ethnic frontier had come into being in central Nigeria.
In the Philippines, Malaysia Indonesia and Sudan, Griswold observes repeatedly the intricate dance between ethnicity, history, and religion. In both Indonesia and Malaysia non-Muslim ethnic minorities adhere to Christianity as a way to preserve their distinctive identity and particular history in the face of the assimilative power of the dominant Islamic culture of maritime Southeast Asia. Though outside the purview of The Tenth Parallel the same dynamic is operative in non-Muslim mainland Southeast Asia. Karens in Burma, Montongards in Vietnam, and Hmong in northern Thailand, view adherence to the Buddhism of the ethnic majority of these nations as a step toward assimilation and loss of ethnic identity. Though Christianity is just as alien in nature to the shamanic spiritual traditions of these peoples as Buddhism, it serves as a distinctive ethnic marker in regions where affiliation to the two religions tracks ethnicity perfectly. And, it also allies the Christian minorities with a powerful civilizational international.
In eastern Indonesia the Christian Ambonese, converted during the period of Dutch rule before Islam had swept so far east, were often partisans of the colonial regime against the efforts of the predominantly Muslim independenc movement. The case of the Ambonese points to a general resentment of the majority culture in many regions impacted by European colonialism. It seems plausible that without European involvement many of the “hill tribes” of eastern India and Southeast Asia would eventually have been assimilated into the ethno-religious mainstream, as many of their predecessors had been. In the process though they would have lost their identity, the cost of social harmony being conformity and homogenization. Whether the perpetuation of ethno-cultural distinctiveness through the alignment of particular groups with different meta-ethnic world religious identities is good or bad is strongly conditioned upon your own specific viewpoint. But in The Tenth Parallel Eliza Griswold shows that from Africa to Southeast Asia the general dynamic is similar. The cleavages shake out in a familiar form, despite the local origins of the conflicts.
Of course despite the subtitle there’s more to religious conflict than that between religions. There is also the conflict within religions. Eliza Griswold’s clear discomfort with the image which evangelical Protestants were projecting to the Muslim world of Christianity is an instance of that. But so is the strife which emerges within and across the sects of Islam. The standard model posits the rise of a Fundamentalist Islam at war with local Sufi traditions. There is a great deal to this story, as far as it goes. But there is a precision and clarity with Fundamentalist Islam, which is really often world normative Islam shifted toward a Saudi Salafi tinge, which does not exist with “moderate Islam” or “Sufi Islam.” By its very nature locally inflected Islam is diverse, and can’t be bracketed under a catchall term on any substantive grounds except to point to its negation of Salafi or reformist Islam. The rise of internationalist Salafi Islams is another case of cultural globalization, and its roots go back centuries. Several hundred years ago many regions of the Islamic world, confronting European powers on the rise, or declining Islamic orders such as that of the Ottomans, entered into a period of reform which gave birth to fundamentalisms of various flavors. The Deobandi movement in India, the Wahhabis of Arabia, and the Fulani jihad may all be considered instantiations of a broader international pattern. Pushing against this were a diverse array of local Islams, many of which lacked the coherency of the reformists who claimed to be bringing Islam back to its first principles. The success of the local Islams varied. In Arabia the Wahhabis allied with the House of Saud and eventually rode the latter’s victories to religious supremacy in most of the peninsula. The Wahhabi ascendancy has been marked by a physical destruction of monuments to rival Islamic traditions, as well as the despised position of Shia within the kingdom. In South Asia the fundamentalist reformists have not swept all before them, as the numerical preponderance of other traditions attests to, though arguably in in Pakistan they have influence out of proportion to their numbers. In Indonesia and Malaysia the fundamentalists are a small minority among the Muslim majority, which varies in its adherence to world normative Islam in any case.
And yet how much should we make of this division within Islam, or those within Christianity? In both Malaysia and Indonesia the governments encourage conversion to Islam by the remaining groups not aligned with a world religion. Despite her conflicts with fundamentalists in her own religion Eliza Griswold did in the end agree to pray with Franklin Graham. There are wheels within wheels. Focusing on one specific wheel, one layer of the dynamic, does not deny that that wheel and dynamic may be nested within others, and that others may be nested within it. The frictions and conflicts on the tenth parallel play out on multiple hierarchical levels. Individuals have their own interests, as do ethnic groups, and finally meta-ethnic groups. Modern Westerners tend to have a methodological individualistic bias, and so reduce group actions to an aggregate of the material incentives and preferences of groups of individuals. This is far too pat and simple. But how to define interests and a meta-ethnic group, a religion, can be easily problematized. As I noted above it is highly likely that the Nigerians killing each other over ethno-religious differences share much more in values and outlook with each other than they do with Westerners. But human conflict often hinges on symbolic markers and issues. One can muse in the vein of “War, what is it good for?”, but at the end of the day war is. Similarly, as an atheist I do not believe that there is a God in fact, but the fact of the beliefs of others that God is is highly consequential. It is less important what the real Islam or Christianity is, than what Islam or Christianity is for the people at any specific place and time. By and large in a world characterized by economic growth driven by non-zero sum interactions violent physical conflict produces absolute losers on all sides. But the heuristics and biases research tells us that quite often people care less about the height of the hill than their own peak position atop it. What Eliza Griswold documents in The Tenth Parallel is of great interest precisely because it puts the spotlight on the individual psychology of people who are caught up in eternal macrohistorical dynamics, processes which we’ve only begun to see as destructive for the aims of greater human wealth and health in the last few centuries.
Image Credit: Wikimedia, Antonin Kratochvil