Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold (Book Review #72 of 2016)

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam

(This is one of several books I have reviewed recently that pertains in part to Islam and its relationship with Christianity, culture, and human rights and the review should be taken in the context of the other reviews. See the list at the bottom of the post.)

This is an excellent book that ought to be popular in missiological circles and might be required reading in a World Civilizations class somewhere. The author travels parts of the 10th parallel, a dividing line and uneasy mixing point of Christianity and Islam around the world. Christianity and Islam are both "in a revival" today and growing along the parallel, tribes on both sides increasingly competing for resources. There are 493 million Christians living below the 10th parallel, 367 Muslims above, writes Eliza Griswold. That's roughly 60 percent of the world Christian population, and about half the Muslim population. Both religions have distinctives in various locales, often times the religions grafting over earlier syncretic practices. But recent revivals also mean more conservative strains of both religions are growing; this has violent implications. This book is a great picture of these hotspots around the globe. My wife used to live along the 10th parallel in Niger, so I found the West African sections of the book most noteworthy.

If you're interested in learning more about the book, check out Terry Gross' interview with the author on  Fresh Air. I am not sure what motivates the author to write a book like this, she writes introspectively at times like she is on her own quest. That makes the book less boring, but might get in the way of her observations too much for others. Cultures along much of the 10th parallel are not kind to unaccompanied single women, but it's not clear if she had traveling companions in her seven years of travels. In one particular scene in 2003, she travels to Sudan with Franklin Graham to tour President Omar al-Bashir's palace where Graham and Bashir joke with each other about who would proselytize whom. Griswold is the daughter of a liberal Episcopalian minister who is opposed to Graham's evangelicalism. Graham would converse with Griswold over dinner, perhaps hearkening back to his own wandering past; she may have been skeptical but lets Graham lead her in the "sinner's prayer" and he later sends her a Bible (which she keeps for six years). Graham's charity, Samaritan's Purse, does an admirable amount of good around the world but there is a bit of a Western arrogance and awkwardness to his operation.

Non-Pentecostal American Christians have been concerned in recent years in the explosion of Pentecostalism in Africa, particularly that connected to the prosperity Gospel. 1/4 of African Christians are now Pentecostal and the number is growing faster than the population. The typical Protestant Christian is now an African woman, something that seems counter-intuitive. Likewise, 80 percent of Muslims live outside the Middle East even if the majority of literature on Islam tends to focus on the region of its birth.

Griswold wants to see "how both sides live," and attends events like an interfaith meeting in Nigeria. She recounts the history of the region, such as the story of Usman dan Fodio, a Muslim cleric who led his followers into exile in 1802 and preached reform that led to a West African-wide jihad/rebellion. The picture of a Muslim scholar publishing works in West Africa in a sort of caliphate seems somewhat unusual today. Sufi Islam mixes uneasily with Sunni Islam in these parts. In many places, Muslim tribes tend to have a more nomadic tradition whereas Christians are farmers.

The author notes an Emir in Nigeria who actively protects Christians from some of the violent uprisings of Muslim groups. Griswold notes that Muslim history records Muhammad showing mercy in his conquests, granting amnesty and giving up at least one opportunity for revenge. The author gives a brief history of African Christianity. One aspect was an early treaty with Christians in Nubia (Sudan) who had successfully repelled Muslim armies in the 7th treaty; the treaty lasted 600 years. (The Ashitname escapes the author's attention but is one historical document housed in Turkey in which Muhammad granted protection to monks and priests in St. Catherine's Monastery, including exemption from taxes, something that is long-forgotten in the 2016 mindset of ISIS.

Griswold traces the explosion in Christianity today to the evangelical missions push spearheaded by the YMCA in the 1800s. As the YMCA evolved, it went to port cities and other places where migrants might be likely to congregate. There are other Christian missions organizations, particularly as America grew and developed, that do not come onto Griswold's radar. Advancements in transportation also helped steadily increase attendance at the Hajj, which led to more Islamic missionaries as well. The post-WWII order put America at the front of operations involving aid and combating Communism. The author writes that this supported further evangelization. She cites a few anecdotes, such as Franklin Graham sending Bibles to Saudi Arabia in 1991 (and angering Gen. Schwarzkopff), but I would note that the the entire history of 20th century US foreign policy had mixed results for foreign missions and any aid benefiting Christian groups not quite so overt. My reading of works by missionaries and diplomats in the 1800s suggests that US policy was more overtly religious then, but the foreign policy itself was weak as the US was not a global superpower.

The British Empire often engaged in curbing missionary activities in areas, in order to keep the peace. In Sudan, Britain forbid Christians proselytizing above the 10th parallel. A would-be Mahdi arose and confronted Britain at great cost. When he died, there were decades of civil war and an actual line in the sand had to be drawn as a border. This legacy continues as most of the Christian work happens in the South of the country. After Sudan gained independence in 1956, lines were more tightly drawn as a new Muslim government seized mission schools and other Christian entities. The Muslim Brotherhood took root in Sudan after being ousted by Abdul Nasser in Egypt and did well in Sudan. In 1989, then-Col. Bashir led troops in a coup and has been in power ever since.

Famine has been one of the primary causes of war in the Sudan and elsewhere. Floods and drought both unite and divide in Africa. The author cites an Islamic belief that sin causes desert. Nigeria in the West had similar problems as in the East, there and elsewhere some Christian-affiliated groups are perhaps more well-known for atrocities against Muslims. She spent time among evangelical Christian and fundamentalist Muslims leading enthusiastic congregations in armed conflict against one another. The author also notes the conflicts in Ethiopia and Africa as well as their historic ties to Christianity. (Ethiopia even claims to house the Ark of the Covenant.) Now there are also Islamic-principled business entities that sound very similar to the Hizmet movement of Turkish cleric Fetullah Gülen, which is known to be active in Africa. (The author must have been ignorant of Gülenist work at the time of writing as she does not mention it or connect the dots.) Griswold writes that Christians in the East blame Christians in the West for not preaching the Gospel themselves, for not doing more in the way of aid, business, and other endeavors that might help their plight. Many in the West would agree with this criticism, particularly when they see the prosperity Gospel gaining such traction (the author visits a Nigerian megachurch). The author does note the increasing work of "creative access" missionaries, noting one connected to a major Western denomination that runs a fitness center in Africa.

From Africa, Griswold takes the reader to SE Asia. There, she witnesses a much more contentious atmosphere. She actually gets to interview and spend time with the Burnhams, the YWAM family that was kidnapped and held for 10 years. She notes the history of Dutch missionaries colonizing Indonesia. Now, there is increasing conservatism and division. Atrocities and revenge are becoming more common, as is weaponized rape on both sides. This part of the book paints Islam as darker. She notes one sector of Indonesia that has implemented Sharia law and the change now that vice squads keep tabs on young people as you might see in Saudi Arabia. She is clearly describing the spread of Wahabbism, (I would note that it was criticized as such by Sec. of State Clinton during the author's work) but does not spell that out. Griswold writes of American aid money flowing to Islamic causes with closer ties to the government while nothing goes to persecuted Christians. Christian charities and orphanages tend to be hated for proselytizing as well as educating girls. The pluralism ostensibly maintained by Suharto from 1967-1998 seems to have quickly given way to something else. After the rescue of the Burnhams, the US military quickly shifted from a hostage rescue to developing Indonesia's abilities to fight counterinsurgency as active Al Qaeda-affiliated cells were found in the country.

The same thing appears to be unfolding in Malaysia, perhaps the most technologically-advanced Muslim country in the world. Christians there may not proselytize or use the name of Allah for "God"-- which is difficult because that has been the traditional word for "God" in Malay (and other languages). Supposedly, the Malay government pays people to convert from other religions to Islam. A person'a religion is on their government-issued IDs, and that creates identification and pressure to convert. Sharia-based law is becoming more common.

Some Filipinos have publicly converted to Christianity only to go back to something else. Griswold notes a gathering of ex-Filipino pastors who are now Muslims. Some have converted for economic reasons, others because they have been caught in gross sin and were forced to resign. In all of these countries, native beliefs make contextualizing the Gospel a particular challenge. I was struck by one particular anecdote: a missionary/pastor explained the difficulty of sharing the Gospel and doing Church with one tribe because they believe that only evil spirits consume flesh, hence the Eucharist becomes difficult to explain even to the converted.

The author attends a Voice of the Martyrs conference. She is sympathetic with Christians who are being persecuted, particularly for Christian education, aid, and orphanage operations that are shut down in the name of Islam. But being a martyr is more complicated than just dying for faith. In Sudan, it had as much to do with tribe and race and history as it did faith. The author notes that in doing counterinsurgency and training foreign armies to fight terrorism, American weaponry simply increases the death toll on all sides. The most violent conflicts tend to be about the power of determining who gets to define what the "true" religion is-- who decides what it means to be a Muslim, Christian, or member of a particular tribe or ethnicity. In some cases, she's found stories of remarkable cooperation in the least-likely of situations. There is truth in Griswold's words, but her book does not reach any clear-cut conclusions in her mind; it's not particularly clear if or how her travels have changed her convictions.

The afterword is the story of Reverend Abdou in Niger. He travels some distance in the region to show a Jesus film. He doesn't seem prepared, has a clumsy approach, things don't go well. He evangelizes simply out of his love for Jesus and is glad to have converted, and makes no money from his efforts. From this, Griswold concludes that people and their internal faith are "complicated and not label-worthy."

I give this book four stars out of five. I note above some of the omissions, and there is a larger ambiguity about the text as the author seems to try hard not to draw conclusions or examine herself too deeply. I imagine she has seen much more than could fit in one volume. But it is a great view of several countries and very conversation-provoking.
Other books helpful for understanding the above:
Books on reform, human rights, and the interaction of Islam with cultures:
Desperately Seeking Paradise - Ziauddin Sardar (5 stars)
Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz - Islam and the Future of Tolerance (1.5 stars)
Reza Aslan - No god but God - The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars)
Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali (4.5 stars)
Heretic - Ayaann Hirsi Ali (4 stars)
Headscarves and Hymens - Mona Eltahawy (4 stars)
I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai (5 stars)
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali (4.5 stars)
In the Land of Invisible Women -  Qanta Ahmed (4.5 stars)
Between Two Worlds - Zainab Salbi (5 stars).
City of Lies - Ramita Navai (3 stars)
Reading Lolita in Tehran -  (3 stars)
Half the Sky - Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (4 stars)
Seeking Allah Finding Jesus - Nabeel Qureshi (4.5 stars)

Books on the History of Islam, The Middle East, and Arab nations:
A Very Short Introduction to the Koran - Michael Cook  (4.5)
A Very Short Introduction to Islam - Malise Ruthven (3 stars)
In the The Shadow of the Sword - Tom Holland (4 stars)
In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire - Robert G. Hoyland (4 stars)
Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses)- John Esposito (1.5 stars)
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes - Tamim Ansary (4.5 stars)
Brief History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield (3.5 stars)
History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (4.5 stars)
The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 (Great Courses) by Salim Yuqub (3.5 stars)
Islam Unveiled - Robert Spencer (1.5 stars)
Lawrence in Arabia - Scott Anderson (5 stars)

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