Jewish Journal


November 16, 2010

It’s not just about Jews in journalist’s ‘Tenth Parallel’


With the news that two bombs sent from Yemen were addressed to Jewish communal organizations in Chicago, it would be easy to imagine that Jews are uniquely positioned in the crosshairs of a global movement of radical Islam. And with newspaper headlines about Israel following every shift in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position on whether to reinstate a freeze on Israeli settlement building in what is to be the territory of a future Palestinian state, one might think that Israel and the Palestinians are at the center of the global Islamic consciousness.

But ask journalist Eliza Griswold, who spent the past seven years reporting on Christian and Muslim communities in Africa and Asia, what people she met along her travels think about Jews and Israel, and she would tell you: Not much.

“The contemporary conversation between Islam and the West is not all about Israel and Palestine,” Griswold said in an interview. In her new book, “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), Griswold takes readers to the countries along the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator that gives her book its name. The region includes some of the world’s most explosively unstable regions, and in her travels through Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, Griswold met radical Muslims and Christians who seemed equally capable of waging violent struggles against the other in the name of religion, who were equally frustrated with Westerners (albeit for different reasons) and who were only marginally interested in either Jews or Israel.

Griswold did encounter Muslims in her travels who said, “We must support our Palestinian brothers,” but she said that their attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a relatively recent addition to their list of concerns. “They come to the story rather late,” Griswold said, noting that even Osama bin Laden only began talking about Palestinians in 1998, years after he began his struggle against the West. “That’s not their primary trigger,” she said.

Indeed, Griswold’s book, which was released in August to very positive reviews, pushes far beyond the old idea of a “Clash of Civilizations” between Christianity — or modernity — in the West and a medieval Islam centered in the Middle East. For all the attention paid to the Middle East, only 20 percent of the world’s Muslims live in that region. Far more live in the areas Griswold passed through in her travels, and by looking closely at the lives and belief systems of Christians and Muslims in these countries, she offers a far more nuanced perspective on what the future of the Muslim world might look like.

It’s hard to tell whether it’s the Christians or the Muslims she meets in Africa and Asia who are more disdainful of the West. African Christians are particularly incensed by the increasing liberality of their American and European counterparts. Muslims in Africa and Asia see the West as simultaneously godlessly secular and defined by its Christian roots, and are increasingly frustrated by the United States’ foreign policy playing out in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But Griswold tells this story in “The Tenth Parallel” from a hyper-local perspective, making clear that while global concerns play a role, the parties involved in these conflicts are not Western at all. “This is about Africans and Africans,” Griswold said, “Asians and Asians.”

Nevertheless, the conflicts between Muslim and Christian communities in these regions do align with some global trends, and Israel does occasionally play a symbolic role. “There’s a curious affinity between Christians in the global south — who tend to be conservative — and Israel,” Griswold said.

“For example, to look at how these local actors took on this global relationship, you don’t have to look farther than the city of Kaduna in northern Nigeria.” The city is divided by the Kaduna River. “On one side of the river,” Griswold said, “are the Muslim neighborhoods of Baghdad and Afghanistan,” names that immediately illustrate the allegiance of this community to two embattled Muslim communities in the Middle East.

“On the other side of the river,” Griswold said, “are the Christian neighborhoods of Haifa, Jerusalem and inexplicably, Television.” That last name could be the result of someone’s mishearing of the city of Tel Aviv — “it’s a mystifying name,” Griswold said — but the fact that African Christians have taken the names of Israeli cities for their own neighborhoods shows that both Christian and Muslim local populations are attaching global significance to their conflicts.

Nevertheless, “The central take-away of this book is that the most overlooked and important religious clashes of our time are those inside of, and not between, religions,” Griswold told an audience at the Los Angeles Public Library in September. It’s a message that should not surprise any Jew familiar with the many divisions within our own religious community. Yet here in the United States, Americans and Jews too often see Islam as a single unified entity, a fact made abundantly clear by this summer’s controversy over the Islamic Center near Ground Zero.

That hotly contested project was headed up by the Sufi imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and Griswold worries about alienating Sufis worldwide, especially because she considers them the world’s most approachable, exciting and progressive Muslims. “Of the 400 million Muslims living in Africa, most of them are Sufis,” Griswold said. “They believe in bringing God into the human heart.

“We do not want to lose Sufis,” Griswold continued, “or have Sufis assume that they are under threat from the U.S.,” especially because Sufis and other liberal Muslims are already being targeted by other, more conservative Muslim groups. In Somalia, this conflict is playing out as a bloody battle between Al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliated militant Islamist group that espouses a hard-line Sunni philosophy. Al-Shabab carried out attacks on people watching the World Cup this past summer in Uganda, and has also focused its violence on the Somali Sufi Muslims that make up the majority of the country’s population.

“The Tenth Parallel” paints a complicated, somewhat bleak picture of a region where religious violence often makes international news. Those news stories rarely offer much in the way of context, making books like Griswold’s even more valuable to readers of all faiths.

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