Friday, August 27, 2010

Tenth Parallel

Just finished my non-fiction book of the year (so far!). It is titled The Tenth Parallel and it was written by Eliza Griswold. She is a journalist who has written a book of poetry, too. This book is her story or stories - about her travels along the tenth parallel or ten degrees latitude north of the equator through countries like Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. She got started on this trek accompanying Franklin Graham's mission, Samaritan Purse, on a trip to Sudan where he wanted to meet with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir who was waging violent jihad against Christians and Muslims in southern Sudan and who would soon begin the genocide in Darfur. Griswold documents the clash of Christianity and Islam along the tenth parallel with research, interviews and stories about people who are caught up in the violence. And it is a violent world but she shows it is not as simple as Christian vs Muslim. It is a religious war but it is also a political one as the powers that be fight over oil, and land and identity. Sometimes it is just a matter of a job. If you have nothing else to do and no means of support, why not join the jihadists.

There is the matter of religious confrontations. Griswold, who was raised Episcopalian and whose father was the highest ranking bishop in the American Episcopal Church ( and who ordained the first openly gay bishop while wearing a bullet proof vest) is not Christian enough for Franklin Graham and other evangelicals, gives a balanced account of the religious warfare along the front lines. There are stories of massacres by Muslims and Christians along with the reasons they give to justify the violence. There are stories of many different kinds of Christians and Muslims, too. Islam is just as fragmented as Christianity. There is no monolithic Muslim movement against the west. Most Muslims in the Global South (and most of the world's Muslims live there and not in the Middle East) are not militant jihadists; they are only trying to survive. These are very poor areas.

There is a lot of confusion among Christians regarding Islam and its intentions toward the Christian world. Are they trying to take over the world and make everyone Muslim? Do they hate all Christians? Does the Koran teach death to all infidels? These are some of the questions Christians have. Christians are suspicious of the motives of Muslims. Few have read the Koran, and few know any Muslims. They know Islam was behind the destruction of lives on 9/11 and they are enraged that Muslim leaders would try to put a mosque on that site. Some even support the Florida pastor who says he is going to burn Korans on the anniversary of 9/11 this year because it is an "evil" religion.

Griswold's book helps us see that real life is not that simple. There are Muslims who are working with Christians to bring peace and reconciliation, teaching the next generation religious tolerance instead of hatred and violence (in some parts of the Global South Muslims and Christians have a history of co-existing peacefully). There are politicians on all sides who have used and are using religion to gain supporters for their positions which means more power for them. And there is oil. Each of the countries along the tenth parallel are oil producers and some of the religious conflict is a veiled fight for oil rights.

The mistrust and religious hatred between Christians and Muslims has a long history in this part of the world. In many of these countries Islam took root first so they see Christians as intruders. Both Christians and Muslims can be aggressively evangelistic and so they are competing for converts. It is a tense situation and violent confrontations are always possible. It has been a way of life for many years. Lately, though, since 9/11 and America's invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the conflict has taken on heightened tensions. Militant jihadists are actively recruiting poor Muslims and educating them in a hatred of all things western, especially, American. Christianity is seen as a tool of the West to subjugate Muslims. Some warlords are using jihad as a way to gain land and wealth for themselves. There are religious fundamentalists as well who interpret the Koran any way they want to make it right for them to do whatever they want.

Griswold tells stories of all sorts of Christians, too. There are many motives for Christian mission and there are many ways of doing it. One well known Christian evangelist is quoted saying, you gotta love Muslims but you can't trust them. There are stories of people with good intentions who have only made the situation worse and there are stories about people who are living a simple life following Christ, serving others. She tries not to make judgments or take sides but like a good journalist she lets the stories do the talking.

It is clear that the heightened rhetoric on the Christian right makes it more plausible that the clash of religious cultures may become violent here. When we lump all Muslims together and name them the enemy. When we ramp up the suspicion surrounding their every move. When we continue to remain in the dark about what Muslims really believe and what the Koran really says. When our first impulse toward Muslims is mistrust instead of respect - when these things are true - we are letting the media coverage of the wars of religion shape our attitudes and actions toward Muslims instead of the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.