What are we fighting for?

Is the global battle between Christians and Muslims exclusively about faith? Eliza Griswold thinks not

Missionary Gracia Burnham, shown with late husband Martin and one of their Filipino Muslim captors, told Eliza Griswold that for many poor, unemployed men in the jungle embracing jihad and kidnapping was a “career move.’’ Missionary Gracia Burnham, shown with late husband Martin and one of their Filipino Muslim captors, told Eliza Griswold that for many poor, unemployed men in the jungle embracing jihad and kidnapping was a “career move.’’ (Reuters/ File)
By Troy Jollimore
Globe Correspondent / September 12, 2010

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“No theory of religious politics or religious violence in our time can possibly be complete,” Eliza Griswold writes near the beginning of “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam,’’ “without accounting for the four-fifths of Muslims who live outside the Middle East or for the swelling populations of evangelical Christians whose faith is bound up with their struggle for resources and survival. I wanted to go where such lives are actually led, where wars in the name of the religion are not Internet media campaigns to ‘control a global narrative’ but actual wars fought from village to village and street corner to street corner.”

Griswold, an award-winning journalist and poet, spent seven years in pursuit of this desire, years spent exploring the countries that lie along the “tenth parallel” of the title — Nigeria, the Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines — where more than half of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world live alongside 60 percent of its 2 billion Christians. Her goal was to meet the religious believers who populate these areas and to see how the adherents of the world’s two largest faiths get along, or fail to, in this part of the world.

Griswold’s travels are sometimes arduous, occasionally bizarre, and not infrequently hazardous. In Nigeria children cry out in horror on seeing her, believing that she is a devil who will turn them white. Near Mogadishu the convoy she is traveling in is shot at by bored soldiers armed with automatic weapons. “My driver stopped the car, which I thought seemed suicidal after these men had just shot at us. He yelled at the shooters, who, to my baffled relief, looked sheepish and apologized. They had fired at us simply because we were moving, the driver told me when he returned to the car. No other reason.”

But “The Tenth Parallel’’ is not, at its heart, an adventure narrative. The deeper purpose of Griswold’s journeys is to reveal a world whose messy and complex conflicts belie the “clash of civilizations” narrative, which depicts Christianity and Islam as two fundamentally opposed forces engaged in a protracted contest for world dominance. In fact, she argues, to insist on viewing the struggles that plague these countries through the lens of a global conflict is to distort their true nature and to ignore the fact that they are nearly always matters of local political history, of sometimes age-old and sometimes recent ethnic rivalries, and of fights for economic survival and prosperity. As often as not religion, rather than being the source of strife, simply provides the ideological framework brought in to justify violence whose real motivation is the struggle for limited resources. As she writes in her section on the Philippines:

“Islam here could mean whatever one wanted it to; it could hold a link to the past or forge a vision for the future. It could reinforce a family’s feudal power or promise liberation from colonial oppression. This is today’s splintered Islamic rebellion, I thought to myself. Its leaders are more concerned with oil than either justice or jihad.”

What looks like religious extremism, then, is typically as much about economics as it is about religion. This is true not only of the warlords and property owners who deploy their private armies against one another, but also of the foot soldiers who populate those armies. “Jihad was ‘a career move,’ ” as Griswold writes. “The only other job besides kidnapping was fishing. And fishing required a boat.” The American Christian missionary Gracia Burnham, herself a victim of Islamic kidnappers, says of the desperate young men who joined violent Islamic movements that “[i]f they couldn’t die in jihad, their next choice was to go to America and get a good job.’”

Griswold, daughter of the former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, is correct, surely, that motivations other than the religious play a role in inspiring the relentless violence that afflicts this portion of the globe. Still, the relentlessness of the violence described in “The Tenth Parallel’’ would seem to undermine the optimism she occasionally insists on displaying regarding the prospects for peace between these two faiths and the role of belief in the lives of the religious. Even if it is not the primary source of violence, religious belief, and the prejudices and division it inspires, have very often helped to justify violence. As Griswold herself writes, believers have often “found meaning in their suffering, and in their own violence.”

And there are other ways, too, in which belief can inspire cruelty and neglect. Consider the Christian charity known as Samaritan’s Purse. In many of this organization’s African hospitals, Griswold discovered, doctors indicate on a patient’s chart whether the patient has been saved, and delay operating on those who have not, “lest [they] die without an opportunity for salvation.”

Surprisingly, though, the story in “The Tenth Parallel’’ that haunts me the most took place not in the Third World but in the United States — specifically in Franklin, Tenn., where Griswold went after returning from the Philippines to attend a conference hosted by the evangelical group Voice of the Martyrs. There she met Mercy Grace, a 15-year-old Mennonite girl whose deepest aspiration was to die for her religion:

“ ‘I’d like her to go to a closed Muslim country,’ her mother said, ‘because people have the idea that Muslims are a lost cause.’ Mercy Grace did not fear martyrdom. ‘It would be neat!’ she said, grinning widely enough to show her braces. Her mother nudged her, and she closed her mouth. ‘It would be a privilege,’ she corrected herself.”

Troy Jollimore, author of the upcoming “Love’s Vision,’’ teaches at California State University, Chico and can be contacted at

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story incorrectly suggested that operations on non-Christians at many hospitals associated with Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief organization, are delayed “lest [they] die without an opportunity for salvation.’’ According to Griswold, Dr. Richard Furman, head of World Medical Mission, the medical arm of Samaritan’s Purse, said that he knew of one hospital where it was sometimes the practice to delay until “someone shares the Gospel’’ with the patient.

THE TENTH PARALLEL: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam
By Eliza Griswold
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pp., $27