By John Timpane, Philadelphia Inquirer
This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
“This book really began around the kitchen table at the rectory with crock-pot stew.”
Eliza Griswold—with a poet’s eye for the telling, homely image—is tracing the genesis of her new book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. …
Tenth Parallel pulls together a decade of research traveling the Muslim world—a world of which most Americans have not the faintest idea. Moving, remarkable, Tenth Parallel makes clear there is no one Islam, insists Western talk of “a war of religions” is misled, and honors the role of religion in the lives of the observant.
But crock-pot stew? Rectory? Griswold, 37, speaks by phone from a New York deli, where she’s ordering a large coffee with cream and honey (echoes of Canaan?): “If I were not who I am, I wouldn’t have done this book. I grew up in a house where faith and intellect coexisted.” That would be as the daughter of an Episcopal minister, much of that time in Chestnut Hill. Her dad, the Rev. Frank T. Griswold 3d, was rector for 10½ years at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church there. He left in 1985 to become a bishop of Chicago.
The Tenth Parallel of the title runs through Africa and travels around the Earth 700 miles north of the equator. In many places, it marks off Muslim and Christian worlds. “I’d heard of the Tenth Parallel from Christian missionaries,” she says, “but the more I traveled, the more it became a concrete reality, not just a convenient metaphor.”
Her story is less of warfare than of “the long history,” as she writes, “of everyday encounter, of believers of all kinds shouldering all things together, even as they follow different faiths.”
The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam
By Eliza Griswold
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pages
Griswold has reported on Islam since 2000. But the book proper began when she traveled in 2003 with evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy, to visit Omar al-Bashir, ruler of Sudan. It was one surreal, edgy visit. “Franklin had called Islam ‘wicked and evil’ in 2001, but Bashir invited him because of fears Sudan was next on President Bush’s supposed anti-Muslim hit list,” Griswold says. “The first thing both men did was try to convert each other! And at the end, Franklin gave Bashir a Re-Elect George Bush campaign button.”
Sudan, in which Muslim/non-Muslim violence has neared civil war, is but one of many dramas Griswold uncovers as she, often in perilous circumstances, reports from Nigeria, the Philippines (where Muslims such as Ahmed Santos “revert” to Islam and join terror cells), Indonesia (the world’s largest Muslim country), and elsewhere. “Four-fifths of the world’s Muslims live in non-Arab countries,” she says. “Their experience of us is largely soldiers, missionaries, and Britney Spears. Our experience of them is Osama bin Laden and Arabs.”
To correct and enlarge this view, Tenth Parallel treats religion in a new, needed way. Griswold rejects the sociological approach, in which religion is analyzed as just one institution among others. She takes religion seriously, for what it is and does for those within it. She writes of people like Reverend Abdu, a former Muslim from Niger, now converted to Christianity, who “bore his several identities, and all their contradictions, in a single skin”: [She writes,] “His was the experience of true religion, which is dynamic because it is alive. Such labels seemed ultimately unimportant to him because he did not belong to himself or to this world; he belonged to God.”
“To approach religion from a point of view in which the analyst feels he knows better—there’s already a fundamental misunderstanding right there,” [Griswold said in the telephone interview]. “If you say to people, ‘I guess you’re poor, so you believe in God, right?’, right away you’ve missed any chance of a real conversation with people who live their faith. … The challenge is not to explain away people’s faith—it’s to articulate their understanding of themselves and their lives in relation to God.”
To see long excerpts from “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam ” at Google Books, click here.
And we don’t understand: “The real takeaway from this book,” she says, “is that we are looking at a clash of religions, but a different kind. It’s a clash inside Islam—and inside Christianity—over who speaks for God.”
That clash explains much about what’s going on—in the many Islamic worlds, and in U.S. politics. Osama bin Laden preaches revenge and holy war. But Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa of Nigeria abandons vengeance and preaches forgiveness—sometimes at great danger to himself. Barack Obama was baptized in the United Church of Christ in Chicago in 1988. But that’s not enough for those, such as Franklin Graham, who think he’s not the right kind of Christian.
As she visits missionaries and imams, shooting wars and rain forests, schools and villages, Griswold, an accomplished poet, draws on the poet’s ear and eye: “I am nearly asleep on my sore, crusty feet. … The air is so humid it’s impossible to tell where the moisture ends and my neck’s sweat begins. The crickets drone, a tone lower than that of the endless trudge of our feet. …”
“That kind of attention-paying, the kind you do in poetry, came to my aid,” she says, adding, rightly, that “that’s what a book like this requires.”
John Timpane is the commentary page editor and a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 2000 he won the James K. Batten Award for Excellence in Civic Journalism from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, and in 2004 he was given the Association of Opinion Page Editors Award for Best Series.