Walking The Religious Tightrope Of The 'Tenth Parallel'

The 10th Parallel is the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator. More than half of the world's Muslims live along the parallel; so do most of the world's Christians. Guest host Rachel Martin speaks to journalist and poet Eliza Griswold, who spent seven years traveling in this region of the world and recounts her journey in a new book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

The 10th Parallel is the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator. It cuts across central Africa: Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, all the way to the Philippines. More than half of the world's Muslims live along the parallel, so do most of the world's Christians.

Journalist and poet Eliza Griswold spent seven years traveling in this region of the world, a place where religious conflict intersects with the growing struggle for land, resources and political power. She examines all of this in a new book called "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam."

Eliza Griswold joins me now from our New York bureau. Thanks for being here.

Ms. ELIZA GRISWOLD Author, "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam"): Thanks for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: So a lot has been made since 9/11 about the so-called clash of civilizations between Islam and Christianity. But your reporting, along what would be essentially the frontlines of such an epic confrontation, actually revealed something much more nuanced and complicated.

Ms. GRISWOLD: Oh, my gosh, yes. I mean, I never saw one religious conflict, one skirmish that didnt have a secular trigger at its root - whether that trigger was a fight over land, oil, water, a local election. So most of the book is about how religion and politics, religion and resources are intertwined in a way thats very difficult to parse.

MARTIN: Let's talk about those resources. You write about the very real environmental struggles of living along the 10th Parallel. How does religion fit into that?

Ms. GRISWOLD: Basically, here is where two kinds of weather meet; dry air dropping from the north meets wet air rising from the south. This is called the Intertropical Convergence Zone. Where these two kinds of weather meet, they create catastrophic droughts and flooding. That causes the people who rely on that land to move.

You know, you can see this when, for example, a lot of north African Muslims are herders. They rely mostly on cattle and cows, so they move with these guys. They migrate. Let's say their land is drying up in northern Nigeria, and so they push south onto land that already belongs to farmers and most of those farmers are Christians.

So you have a fight thats really about land use. And then what happens suddenly is, well, your neighbor isnt just trying to take your land for his cows. You know, he's part of the Muslim majority who's trying to knock you off your land. And so this kind of group-think or mob mentality comes in. And when that happens, that frequently takes on the color of religion.

MARTIN: At one point, someone describes to you jihad as a career move. And Im quoting from your book now, "If they couldnt die in jihad, their next choice was to go to America and get a good job."

How did that strike you when you heard that?

Ms. GRISWOLD: Well, the person who said that to me is Gracia Burnham, and she is the widow of a man named Martin Burnham, who was killed in firefight when the two were held by Abu Sayyaf, which is an al-Qaida-linked group of militant thugs, basically. They make their money out of kidnapping in the Philippines.

Gracia had spent a year in captivity with them. You know, they're tiny little islands, you can be a fisherman or how else can you make money: By kidnapping people and fishing requires a boat.

MARTIN: I want to ask you a little bit about your own background, which comes out in this book. Your father is the former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Frank Griswold.

Now, is this the kind of thing that helped you or hurt you, as you were reporting for this book?

Ms. GRISWOLD: Well, I think my career as a journalist is largely fueled by my fear that my father's prediction that I may become a nun...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GRISWOLD: ...it might come true. But in terms of reporting, it certainly informs my ability to talk about religion, my openness toward people who practice in different ways. I dont think I have any greater intellectual understanding of what makes people believe what they do. I think I have a much higher level of empathy and an ability to connect with people on their own terms, than I did before I started writing this book.

MARTIN: Eliza Griswold's new book is called "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam." Eliza, thank you.

Ms. GRISWOLD: Thanks, Rachel.

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