Current Issue

Nov. 17, 2010

Vol. 111, No. 4

Alumni Scene

Crossing a religious divide

Eliza Griswold ’95 reports on the complex relationship between Christians and Muslims

By Rachel Lieff Axelbank ’06
Published in the November 17, 2010, issue




Investigative journalist Eliza Griswold ’95 has spent the last seven years roaming through Africa and Asia along the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator, exploring the faith-based conflicts there that date back centuries. More than half of the world’s Muslims and some 60 percent of its Christians live along this aptly called fault line, known as the 10th parallel. To tell their story, Griswold undertook a kind of grim religious tourism throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Somalia, and Sudan, and her reportage is synthesized in The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).  

In these countries, she met with bishops, imams, academics, chieftains, soldiers, doctors, civilians, and many others on both sides of the divide about the entanglements of religion — with politics, ethnicity, and geography — that shape their lives. In examining the relationship between faith and conflict in the places she visited, she found that clashes between Christians and Muslims often were impossible to parse from such secular triggers as oil, land, honor, and political power.  

The widespread Christian reawakening in 1960s Indonesia, for example, is linked to the outlawing of Confucian­ism and to a government pogrom against “godless” Communists. In the Philippines, serfs have become jihadists because their overlord needed soldiers in a land dispute.    

Griswold also found pockets of peaceable change. In the Nigerian city of Kaduna, which is bisected by the 10th parallel, she visited with an imam and pastor who once were mortal enemies but have since joined forces to foster accord between their followers. During the 1980s and ’90s, each man cultivated his flock to hate the other’s, employing scripture to “plant the seed of genocide.” Thousands of people were killed and many houses of worship were burned down. Today the two men are working to “reprogram” former fighters and keep peace, and each takes to citing holy passages as part of that effort.  

Griswold, a poet whose first collection of poems, Wideawake Field, was published in 2007, calls her background in poetry instrumental to her ability to listen to people and capture the details of their lives. Her perspective is deepened, too, by having been born into a family in which religion was central: Her father was a prominent clergyman.  

Griswold is adamant that prophesying about the future relationship between Christians and Muslims along the 10th parallel is “a fool’s errand,” but observes that the two religions “will continue to shift and splinter in unpredictable ways.” She believes that the clashes within faiths — from the seventh-century fissure of Christians in Egypt to the 21st-century enmity between Sudan’s jihad kingpins — are most sorely in need of further examination. “These,” she says, “are the struggles we really must investigate to understand how the future of religion will play out.”  


Rachel Lieff Axelbank ’06 is an M.F.A. candidate in nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

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