TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Eliza Griswold, has been writing about the collision of Christianity and Islam over religion, world views, land, food, oil and water. The area she's reported on is the 10th parallel, the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator.
She's reported from the 10th parallel in Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia and The Philippines, visiting places where wars in the name of religion have been fought from village to village and street corner to street corner. Her new book is called "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam."
Griswold grew up in a rectory in the 1970s and '80s. Her father, Frank Griswold, was the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in America in 2003, when Gene Robinson became the first openly gay person ordained as a bishop in the church, creating an international split in the larger Anglican Church.
Eliza Griswold, welcome to FRESH AIR. You began your investigation of this faith-based fault line in December, 2003, when you traveled with Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham, who's now very famous himself. Where did you travel with him to, and why did you want to go with him?
Ms. ELIZA GRISWOLD (Author, "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam"): We went to the northern capital of Sudan, which is Khartoum, and we went to meet with a man who Franklin considers the devil: Hassan Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan.
And we met with him. This was the first time Franklin had met with Bashir, and he wanted it to do a couple of things, one of which was to convince him, convince Bashir to allow him, to allow Graham, to reach out to Muslims who lived in Khartoum and in the north.
GROSS: But Christian proselytizing to Muslims is banned there. It's illegal.
Ms. GRISWOLD: That's exactly right. Northern Sudan, like many of the countries along the 10th parallel, is what's considered a closed country, which means that it's either the letter of the law says it's illegal to proselytize there, or culturally, it's simply not allowed.
And so Graham was asking Bashir for the right to preach to Muslims there.
GROSS: And did President Bashir give him that right?
Ms. GRISWOLD: Indeed not. What President Bashir did was try to convince Graham to convert to Islam. And the two men engaged in this faith-based one-upsmanship where each tried to convert the other to his respective faith.
And what happened then was that Franklin remembered that in his pocket, he had a W 2004 re-election pin for the re-election of George W. Bush. So he reached into his pocket, and he handed it to Bashir, and he said: Mr. President, you'll be speaking to my president later on today, and I think you should tell him you're his first voter here in the Sudan.
GROSS: Why did he say that?
Ms. GRISWOLD: In one way, to read what that situation really meant, was for Graham was definitely showing Bashir that he had the ear of the administration, that here's where faith and foreign policy were really intermingled because Graham was not an emissary of the U.S. government in any way, yet the pin, which he'd taken from the desk of Karl Rove's secretary, indicated that he had access to the very the uppermost echelons of power.
And, by the way, Bashir only met with Graham because he was afraid that his country would become the next country, after Iraq and Afghanistan, to face U.S. invasion.
GROSS: So was Franklin Graham President George W. Bush's personal minister?
Ms. GRISWOLD: He was. That's a term you know, he was his personal pastor, and there, when I was with Franklin Graham in his office in Boon, North Carolina, there was a picture of him praying with George W. Bush and Laura Bush, holding their hands, on the wall, hanging on the wall.
GROSS: I guess, you know, I'm wondering, when Franklin Graham, who was perceived in the United States by a lot of people as very extreme, when he goes to a place like Sudan, establishes hospitals there, meets with the president, is he seen as representative of what Americans believe?
Ms. GRISWOLD: Very, very much so. And that is one of the more dangerous realities of how conservative evangelicals abroad can shape the perception of the West.
Especially, this is especially sensitive in the Muslim world. And this is not new. You know, I mean, this really goes back to post-World War II and the foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which largely came out of trying to be a Muslim YMCA because the only Westerners Muslims saw at that time were Christian evangelicals coming to spread their faith.
So this kind of defensive posturing of Islam, Islam is under threat by the West, unfortunately, a handful of evangelicals can misrepresent what the West is about and make Muslims feel very much under threat.
GROSS: One of the things you write about in your book is the 10/40 window. I want you to describe what that is.
Ms. GRISWOLD: The 10/40 window is really a mission strategy that dates back to the end of the 20th century, which comes out of the thinking of a man named Luis Bush. And this is one of the curious...
GROSS: No relation to the President Bushes.
Ms. GRISWOLD: None at all. None at all. It's one of the curious confluences of technology and belief. What Luis Bush did, he used to work at Anderson, at Arthur Anderson Consulting.
And what he did was set on a map, using satellite technology, where the world's poorest people and the fewest numbers of believers that means of born-again Christians actually lived.
And what he found when he plotted this point is that these numbers coincided with what he termed the 10/40 window. He came to that title with his wife's help.
The 10/40 window lies north of the 10th parallel and south of the 40th, and the 40th is Greece and sort of Southern Europe, right? So within this red rectangle, if you look a map, you're looking at a long square. And on his map, this is red.
This is the majority of the world's Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and the majority of the population lives on less than $500 a year. So it's this nexus between the world's poor and the world's what he would call the world's spiritually poor.
And it's where he and many others believe Christians should focus the efforts of their evangelism.
GROSS: And how is that playing out today?
Ms. GRISWOLD: That is a good question. You know, I myself have spent time in many of those countries and in Iraq with missionaries who work what some people would call creative access, and this is Northern Sudan, as well, which means going into a country under other guises, right, as either maybe you're running a clinic, maybe you're running a fabric store, maybe you're teaching English.
And what I have found overwhelmingly, I mean, at first I thought, well, maybe I will write about what these people are doing, you know, what it means to go into a country that is against the law, the letter of the law, to go preach there.
What I found time and time again is that no matter what the people's beliefs were, what the practical reality of their work was is they were doing all kinds of NGO work, whether it was teaching English, making - giving people jobs, teaching people computer skills, things that no matter what their aim might be, the actual result in the moment was pretty benevolent.
And that's so that's a long answer to say that what's going on within that window is really unclear. And most times I've seen mission working, it's been to the good.
GROSS: Let's talk about your trip to Nigeria, where you investigated the collision between Christianity and Islam. Let's talk first about a church you visited that's part of a network of churches that dates back to a missionary named Karl Wilhelm Kumm, a German missionary who was important in Nigeria in spreading Christianity. Would you describe the network of churches that he helped create?
Ms. GRISWOLD: Sure. He created a network, it's really tens of thousands of churches in Nigeria. He came with the idea of expressly stopping Islam's spread in Africa.
And his idea was to build a string of thousands of churches like military forts - that's his language across the 10th parallel, across where he saw the Islamic world end and the world's pagans at that time, that was the common usage or, you know, those who follow traditional religions - began.
He wanted to make this bulwark in order to stop Islam from again, his language winning Africa. And today, the churches he built, these frontline churches because he himself walked from Nigeria to Sudan, almost died, almost drowned along the way, these churches do serve in their understanding as the bulwark against Islam's spread in Africa.
CONAN: And why is it so important to him and the people in his churches to stop the spread of Islam in Africa?
Ms. GRISWOLD: Well, you know, that the question of Islam as the enemy of Christianity didn't begin with our contemporary times, our contemporary evangelical sort of firebrands talking. It's a much older confrontation. It's a much older contest that really dates back to the late 19th century.
And Kumm was not alone in this position that, you know, Islam was going to and basically, it was the Industrial Revolution, roads, telegraphs, the forces that spread the West and Christianity could equally be used to spread Islam.
And it was convenient thinking, because it sort of whipped up fervor around the spread of a rival faith. But it was also very much the fear at the time that if the Christian West didn't take over these blank spaces on the map, then the Islamic world would.
GROSS: So you visited one of these churches in the Kumm network of churches, in a town called Yelwa. Just tell us a little bit about Yelwa and the specific church.
Ms. GRISWOLD: Yelwa has been the site of some of the bloodiest massacres between both Christians and Muslims of the past decade. In fact, some of the bloodiest happened around September 1, 2001, and because of the timing with 9/11, what would probably have been picked up by the foreign press just got lost.
Thousands killed eventually. Again, with the trouble with numbers, it's hard to know. In one case, Christians surrounding the town, encircling the town these are all reprisal attacks. So they begin in, you know, one begins the other counterattacks, Christians surrounding the town and killing every Muslim they found within the town.
On another attack, the church that you mentioned, this church which is in Yelwa was also surrounded, and Muslims surrounded the church and massacred everybody coming outside after morning devotions.
So the history of bloodshed is very, very deep, very, very painful, and both sides have mass graves very close to places of worship that are hard to believe when you see the numbers, you know, 100 men in this hole, 200 children in this hole. It's painful, and it's visceral, and it's a daily reality.
So, you know, here, one of the things that I really learned in the course of this book was that we need people's understanding of religious conflict as visceral and daily, is very, very real.
And that certainly is one thing that I took away from Yelwa, where, you know, more than coincidentally, Yelwa is largely peaceful now, and the reason is because fighting has cost each side so much, so many cows, so many children, so much land use, that neither side fights anymore because they see it in their interest to be peaceful now.
GROSS: Now, I know you talked to people who were nearly victims and witnessed massacres. Did you talk to anybody involved with massacres who justified their actions?
Ms. GRISWOLD: Yes. The first person - many is the answer. I talked to many. The first person who comes to mind is a man named Farheen Ibnuamid(ph) in Indonesia, who had gone to training camps in Afghanistan and come back. He is Indonesian.
He had come back, and when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who's one of the architects of 9/11, had come to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, Farheen had been his emissary, had taken him around.
So this guy, this guy has some pretty strong ties within the militant world. When it comes to Indonesia, he had led a massacre on the island of Sulawesi, where Christians and Muslims had been fighting, among other things, over a local election, and their real grudge against each other was the cacao boom, money coming from the spiking prices of chocolate around the world.
Anyway, so Farheen had led a group of Muslims down a hill to attack a town, and he had wiped out a Christian village. And I went back to that village with him to see what was going on. And that was a pretty illuminating experience.
GROSS: What did you see?
Ms. GRISWOLD: Well, for one thing, one of the ways in which the village was now Muslim because the Christians didn't want to live around Muslims anymore. They had moved up to the top of this mountainside, to a nearby town called Tentena. So all the Christians lived on the mountain; all the Muslims lived along the coast.
So people were rebuilding this village when we went back. And, you know, Farheen had been tortured quite badly in the course of his interrogation. So that's what he said, and that's what some of the Indonesian security people I talked to said, as well.
So he'd had a lot of electric shock. He said his mind was like a broken computer. He kind of came and went. So not everything he said was totally clear. But sitting with him, we were sitting in a Land Rover, he was slumped down in the back of the car, and he just kept saying, you know, the Christians wanted to kill the Muslims, they wanted us out of here. This is divine holy war, as if all he could do he couldn't face what he'd done.
And all he could do was kind of rely on these scraps of broken ideology, which is really all he had left.
GROSS: So we've been talking about your trip with Franklin Graham to Sudan, where he met with the president of Sudan, President Bashir, with the goal of getting permission to convert Muslims to Christianity, and that kind of proselytizing is against the law in Sudan. He didn't get the permission.
But the things that you were talking about, I think the conflicts between Christians and Muslims lead us to what's going on in the United States right now, which is the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic community center a few blocks away from ground zero in Manhattan.
And I'm wondering how your studies, your investigation of the collisions between Christians and Muslims in the 10th parallel helps you understand what's going on now, if it helps you understand what's going on now, surrounding that proposed Islamic community center.
Ms. GRISWOLD: Sure. I mean, what I see in this is the beyond the demonization of the other, is a fight really inside of let's say the West, but we could say the Christian West or the Judeo-Christian West, between what people's rights are.
And the principal take-away for me from this experience along the 10th parallel was that the real conflicts shaping the future of the world's religions are not between the religions, they're inside of the religions.
And so that means the fight over who gets to speak for God, whether that's a liberal or a conservative, whether that's, you know, Franklin Graham or Obama, both of whom are Christians, consider themselves to be, follow Jesus Christ, those are the real flashpoints. Those are what we need to watch.
GROSS: So you see it as an internal dispute in the United States between whether it's liberals or people on the right who speak for the faith, who speak for Christianity?
Ms. GRISWOLD: I do. I mean, this whole thing came up, you know, largely overlooked, until it became politically expedient to do so, you know, by a blogger to say oh, now we're going to oppose this.
At first, you know, even, you know, FOX News didn't oppose the idea of the Islamic center. So everyone has weighed in on their position not so much about the Islamic center, but about where they see Islam in American society. And that really reflects that really is a political issue that one could substitute in homosexuality, gay marriage. There are lots of other issues that would push the same buttons.
GROSS: Eliza Griswold, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. GRISWOLD: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Eliza Griswold is the author of the new book "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.