'The Tenth Parallel,' Eliza Griswold's book on Christianity and Islam

(Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Mewshaw
Sunday, August 22, 2010


Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity

and Islam

By Eliza Griswold

Farrar Straus Giroux. 317 pp. $27

Several hundred miles north of the equator, a lengthy portion of the 10th parallel forms what Eliza Griswold calls a "faith-based fault line" along which Islam and Christianity intersect and often clash in bloody spasms of violence. Starting in 2003, during the Bush administration's global war on terror, Griswold traveled extensively in this area, reporting on conflicts and tense truces in Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Although many of these events might be described as religious wars, Griswold takes pains to point out that they are also struggles for local political and economic control, as well as geopolitical grabs for emerging markets and resources, especially oil.

An American poet and experienced journalist, the author brings to her book a sharp eye for telling details and a keen sense of place. By her own admission, she also brings personal baggage. As the daughter of Frank Griswold, the former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, she grew up a preacher's kid, deeply steeped in Christian traditions and at home with evangelicals and international proselytizers such as Billy Graham's son Franklin. But she has done her homework on Islam, and as a young woman traveling alone, she appears to have encountered no obstacles in Muslim countries that she couldn't overcome.

Admirably evenhanded, she recounts the excesses of fundamentalism on both sides. For readers more accustomed to hearing about Islamic inflexibility, she recalls the callous myopia of Christianity. "Dr. Richard Furman, the head of the World Medical Mission, the medical arm of [Franklin] Graham's organization, told me that in one of the Samaritan's Purse's African hospitals, the doctors will draw a plus or minus sign on a patient's chart to indicate whether he is an evangelical Christian. If not, his operation may be postponed until someone shares the Gospel with him lest he die without an opportunity for salvation."

With no self-congratulatory New Journalistic posturing, she visits some of the riskiest places on the planet and tracks down terrorists, warlords, renegade priests and aspiring Christian martyrs. Like any ambitious reporter, she's not reluctant to take advantage of official news conferences in Khartoum or an NGO helicopter into otherwise inaccessible Mogadishu. What's extraordinary, however, is her persistence in leaving the beaten path to interview the American son of a Somali warlord or a U.S. missionary who survived a Muslim kidnapping that killed her husband or a repentant terrorist responsible for dozens of deaths in Malaysia.

But unfortunately, the sheer surfeit of names, places, dates and historical data sometimes threatens to swamp the narrative, and Griswold has the same trouble as the reader holding so much information in mind. Early on, Anglican archbishop Benjamin Kwashi says, "God has moved his work to Africa." Later, Griswold recycles the quote. When Franklin Graham meets Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, she describes the palace grounds where "Charles 'Chinese' Gordon was murdered by the jihadis." Two pages later, she repeats herself. On four occasions she writes that Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population. Three times in 10 pages, she refers to the island of Mindanao as the main home of Muslims in the Philippines. On countless occasions she notes that most Muslims in northern Africa are Sufis.

The reason for this repetitiveness would appear to be that "The Tenth Parallel" draws heavily on articles published over several years in newspapers and magazines. When they were stitched together into a book, extraneous material somehow escaped the copy editor's blue pencil and has left lumpy seams.

More crucially, it escaped someone's attention that Griswold repeats herself in structuring scenes. The result is a pattern of interviews with "the most notorious member of Balik Islam" or "the most powerful commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front" or the Pope of Terrorism, Hassan Al-Turabi, "the architect of the most violent jihad of modern times." After building expectations, the author often rushes through the actual encounters without producing anything meaningful. It's understandable how she might be grateful just to get in and get out of so many menacing situations alive; no one can fault her courage. But the cruel truth of journalism is that an interview that doesn't advance the story needs to be omitted.

Still, Griswold deserves credit for going where so few dare to venture. In a sense, like the best Christian missionaries, she serves as a witness in both meanings of the word -- simultaneously observing sad realities and, in the process, showing people on the ground something valuable about Westerners.

Michael Mewshaw is the author of 11 novels and eight books of nonfiction, most recently "Between Terror and Tourism: An Overland Journey Across North Africa."

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