Jewish Journal

‘Africa is a logical place ...’

by Brad A. Greenberg

August 22, 2010 | 12:33 pm

What I find to be the most surprising detail from Eliza Griswold’s new book “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam” appears in the introduction the this NPR interview with Griswold: “More than half of the world’s Muslims live along the parallel; so do most of the world’s Christians.”

How can that be?

The 10th Parallel, as shown in this NYT graphic, stretches from the western coast of central Africa to the eastern edge of Indonesia. (Obviously, it wraps the globe, but most of it’s other regions are in water.) How can more than half of the world’s Christians live in an area that doesn’t include Europe, North America, South America or even most of Africa?

A quick glance at world religion stats on Wikipedia suggests that less than 500 million of the more than 2 billion Christians in the world live along the 10th Parallel. I haven’t taken a stats course since freshman year of college, but even a journalist can recognize that 25 percent is not the same as more than 50 percent.

But I’m not going to let that get in the way of enjoying what is being hailed as a very good book. From one of two New York Times reviews:

“The Tenth Parallel” is a beautifully written book, full of arresting stories woven around a provocative issue — whether fundamentalism leads to violence — which Griswold investigates through individual lives rather than caricatures or abstractions. In this tropical region where monsoons and jungles give way to desert, she looks at how history, resources, climate and demographic trends have combined with and shaped the struggle among religions. Because of both population growth and the explosion of Christianity in Africa in the last half-century, nearly a fourth of the world’s Christians now live south of the 10th parallel, alongside Muslims who are migrating from the north to escape creeping desertification. All along this fault line, struggles over valuable resources like oil, lumber and minerals add to the volatile mix.

Africa is a logical place for Griswold to begin her story, since Muhammad sent followers and family to find refuge in Christian-ruled Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) in 615. Traders have plied the route from Mecca to Timbuktu in western Africa ever since. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and its 140 million people are evenly divided between the Muslim north and the Christian south. It is also America’s fifth-largest supplier of oil. Chronic conflict springs from both these sources. Griswold visited a local Muslim king, the emir of Wase, in his hilltop castle in 2006 to hear him bemoan the worsening outbreaks of religious violence — which had taken tens of thousands of lives — that neither his clout as a traditional leader nor his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh could halt.

You can read the other NYT review, from “Beliefs” columnist Mark Oppenheimer, here.

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