The Tenth Parallel

Can one heated meridian of our troubled globe—a long-contested ribbon of southern Africa and South Asia where conflicts erupt often, daily, even several times a day—be employed to map a world-spanning struggle? We might easily think of clashes in Sudan and Indonesia as disparate fires, but journalist Eliza Griswold, daughter of an Episcopal bishop, is attuned to the power of faith, and finds powerful ways to link them, showing how villages hemispheres apart can be swept up as local emblems of a global war of the worlds, as collision points between Christianity and Islam. Indeed, it’s fascinating how surely this belt—12,000 miles along two continents—is a proving ground for international conflict we often (imprecisely) think of as centered elsewhere:  Afghanistan or Pakistan, say, versus a vague place called “the west.”

Wake up, Griswold says in The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam: Nigeria’s Middle belt or Indonesia’s coconut farms only seem remote. The tenth parallel’s conflicts may very well shape our global future. Partly it’s a sheer matter of numbers: half the world’s Muslims live in this zone, as do sixty percent of the world’s Christians. Trade routes and colonialism, 19th-century missionary efforts, and a series of geographical factors—ranging from tse tse flies to tradewinds—laid down these religious development patterns. Just as conflict in Afghanistan now arises out of a combination of its own geographical isolation as well as its history as a strategically rich, and invasion-prone spot—so too the history of this line reflects a complex history of contested invasions, of outer powers using the latitude to jockey for their own interests.

But now the tenth parallel, which runs seven hundred miles below the equator, supports a burgeoning population in fragile ecosystems threatened equally by growth and climate change. As people struggle to survive they often give themselves over to God. Meanwhile, it also seems that the versions of God being proffered, and those being accepted—whether brought by jihadis, or Pentecostals—are themselves more intense and divisive, and far less peaceful than gods observed elsewhere. Muslim and Christian gods recognized along the conflict line increasingly demand crusade, death, conversion, sacrifice. (At the very least they don’t attend to some of the basic worldly problems: versions of religion being brought in, for instance, don’t approve basic family planning measures which might limit stress on these burgeoning, youthful, hungry populations.) For reasons large and small, it seems that in this fragile zone, impoverished people again and again feel their god calling for blood.

Written in quick episodic takes—moving from western Africa across the globe to the Philippines in 300-odd pages—Griswold’s book can sometimes read like a catalog of miseries and warlords. She zooms in and out of complex local politics at lightning speed. Who exactly is cutting off whose leg and why? Who is starving now? And what does religion have to do with it? Yet behind it a larger pattern emerges—a sobering one. More often than not, the “war of the worlds” that marauds as religious comes down to fights over grazing routes, poverty, and hunger.  When the world fights about God, Griswold argues, it may not merely be about theology, but in fact about struggles for something far more worldly: food.

Indeed, much of the book is framed as an effort to understand why and how desperately impoverished locales around the world have come in recent years to be fighting what seem like proxy wars—wars in which religious issues stand in for deeper conflicts about resources, or where the possession of resources has become defined by religious affiliation. People use what religious organization exists in war-torn places to replace lacking, serviceless states. Religion conveys some citizenship, and offers some practical (as well as spiritual) hope. The cycle repeats itself: as a result both of intense conflict and intense poverty, this belt is ripe with both Christian and Muslim conversion efforts, often by factions who either deliberately or inadvertently fuel the flames of conflict. In a vicious cycle, Griswold shows how religion brought from elsewhere often amplifies local conflict, and how local conflict couches itself in religious terms. Fighting over water rights gets cloaked in the rubric of God. (The fact that Griswold never really settles the implicit chicken-or-egg question is largely, I think, to her credit.)

Wherever she drops down—Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, or Indonesia—Griswold doesn’t reduce, or attempt to proscribe answers for specific problems. But underneath, as a reader, it’s hard not to feel an urge to create secular institutions that can help a different kind of prosperity flourish and help make tolerance possible. (I found myself wishing to redouble international health care and family planning efforts—not in the name of God but of healthy women). Griswold wants to urge us out of thinking that these conflicts are either natural or divine, and to help us begin to imagine what on Earth we might do about them.