Eliza Griswold on the Muslim-Christian Divide


KIM LAWTON, correspondent: There’s been a lot of theorizing about the conflict between Islam and Christianity—what some have called a “clash of civilizations.” Journalist and poet Eliza Griswold wanted to learn about the conflict for herself up close and personal by talking to real people in the midst of it all.

ELIZA GRISWOLD: I wanted to go to where the world is really breaking apart. I wanted to go see what happens when these two religions meet on the ground in villages, mega-slums, floods, droughts. I really feel that I’ve seen that the world is breaking down on tribal lines, and the greatest of those tribes is religion.

LAWTON: Griswold spent the past seven years reporting from what she considers perhaps the biggest faith-based fault line in the world—the tenth parallel, the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator in Africa and Asia.

post01-elizagriswoldGRISWOLD: These are very contested spaces traditionally, and religion has become grafted onto what makes them so contested today.

LAWTON: The area includes Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines—all places of bloody battles between Muslims and Christians. Griswold says geography, climate, wind patterns and human migration have led to clear lines of demarcation.

GRISWOLD: When we think of Islam we think of a billion people around the world. We don’t usually think that four out of five of those people live outside of the Middle East. They’re not Arabs. They live in Africa, and they live in Asia, and then you have about half of the world’s two billion Christians who also live in what we call these days the Global South.

LAWTON: Along the tenth parallel, both Christianity and Islam have been experiencing an explosive growth in numbers and religious fervor. Griswold wanted to examine whether fundamentalism necessarily leads to violence.

GRISWOLD: The belief that there is one and only one way to find God, and the understanding that that leads immediately to an enemy, because everybody else is wrong. That kind of binary division between us and them, the saved and the damned, I wondered if that was inherently violent because you were setting yourself against another person.

post03-elizagriswoldLAWTON: Griswold’s explorations were deeply influenced by her personal background. Her father, Frank Griswold, is an Episcopal bishop who from 1998 until 2006 was the top leader, the presiding bishop, of the US Episcopal Church.

GRISWOLD: I grew up with a lot of fear about what God’s will would mean. You know, after being a 12-year-old and watching my dad be consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, which involved lying face down on a cathedral floor with his arms out in a crucifix shape. That terrified me. If I submitted to God’s will, what would God ask me to do?

LAWTON: Griswold says her family encouraged wrestling over questions of faith and intellect.

GRISWOLD: How does the mind work in relation to God? How do all kinds of people believe in God? And how does intelligence apply to that? That notion very much is at the center of what sent me looking along the tenth parallel. So is the idea that people can believe in God absolutely without necessarily being dangerous or without necessarily there being a way to explain their faith away.

post02-elizagriswoldLAWTON: Her journey began in 2003 in Sudan, where nearly two million people had been killed in a civil war between the predominantly Muslim North and the predominantly Christian South. Two years before the war ended, Griswold traveled there to observe a meeting between evangelist Franklin Graham and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. She says Bashir was afraid the US would invade Sudan, while Graham wanted permission to do evangelism in the northern part of the country.

GRISWOLD: The trip itself was fascinating to me, because it was what happens when faith and foreign policy become interlinked. And it’s something we’d heard a lot about, certainly during the Bush administration, but both before, because this is a history that dates back to colonialism, and also still today there’s quite a strong religious lobby that works strongly in our foreign policy that we don’t always see.

LAWTON: You talk in your book about many people saying to you this isn’t really a conflict about religion; it’s a conflict about oil, or water, or politics, resources. How much is religion truly a factor in some of these conflicts?

GRISWOLD: It’s almost an impossible question to answer because I have found that each conflict is different. I never saw a conflict that we would see as religious that didn’t have some kind of secular or worldly trigger—whether that’s land, oil, water, even chocolate crops in Indonesia. Now does that mean that religion doesn’t come to bear on these conflicts? It’s more complicated than that.

LAWTON: Adding to the complexity, she says, are clashes within the religions.

post04-elizagriswoldGRISWOLD (speaking at bookstore): There is a very profound religious clash that we’re missing. It is not the clash between Christianity and Islam. It is the clash inside of religions. It is the question between Christians over who has the right to speak for God. Those same questions are going on inside Islam today, and yet we don’t hear very much about it.

LAWTON: Griswold saw religion being used to fuel violence, but she also saw it used as a force for reconciliation.

GRISWOLD: One of those places is in northern Nigeria, this town of Kaduna, where a pastor and an imam worked together to really transform one of the most violent fault lines along the tenth parallel into one of the most peaceful ones. How did they do that? Community building.

LAWTON: She says the pastor reminded her that events in the US and other parts of the West can have repercussions around the world.

GRISWOLD: He me told me this quote that I just find so relevant now, which is when the West sneezes Africa and Asia catch the cold. So what does that mean, really? Well, that means quite viscerally, for example, with the cartoon riots, the Danish cartoon riots several years ago, more people died in Nigeria than any other country around the world.

LAWTON: After seven years of talking to people on the front lines, Griswold says she didn’t discover any easy answers about the volatile mix of religion, politics, and violence.

GRISWOLD: What I probably took away is certainly empathy, but also—it’s a hard word to use because it comes with so much baggage—but a lot of humility, I guess. Because I didn’t feel myself in a place to intellectually judge people’s lives, although I began thinking—I didn’t even question that I would be able to sort of assess what people were up to by assessing their sociology, and in truth I couldn’t.

LAWTON: But she did come to see, as she writes in her book, that “religions, like the weather, link us to one another, whether we like it or not.”

I’m Kim Lawton in Washington.

  • Richard Sprague

    Appreciate reading this.

  • Dyz

    “LAWTON: After seven years of talking to people on the front lines, Griswold says she didn’t discover any easy answers about the volatile mix of religion, politics, and violence.”

    I could have told her that.

    “LAWTON: But she did come to see, as she writes in her book, that “religions, like the weather, link us to one another, whether we like it or not.””

    This article uses many words to say absolutely nothing new or insightfull.

  • Muslim

    The bottom line is that since:

    1) There is no strong central authority to protect the Muslims
    2) Muslims of Africa are in dire poverty

    they become “sitting ducks” for Christian missionaries who promise them food and shelter, but at the price of the soul Allah gave to them.

    Islam clearly commands that there is only ONE diety, Allah.

    Islam clearly states that Jesus(Peace be upon him) is NOT GOD nor is he co-equal with God, he is ONLY A MESSENGER.

    Jesus is a Messenger of Allah.
    Moses is a Messenger of Allah.
    Abraham is a Messenger of Allah.

    The last and final Messenger is Muhammad(Peace be upon him) and what he preached and was sent with super-cedes and abrogates the laws of the old messages of Allah as sent to Jesus and Moses.

    What Muhammad(Peace be upon him) came with abrogates the day to day laws Jesus was sent with and so too with Moses(Peace be upon them all).

    Christian missionary tactics are deplorable, they offer food but at the price of the soul of the convert, and Muslims worldwide are in dire poverty struggling to scrape by.

    In the modern world this is the root of the animosity.

  • Rebecca J. K. Roxas

    You do know how to insult Christendom and the grandchildren of the Old European Christian families. Do not ever claim Islam is superior to Christendom, it pre-dates Islam, and is anti-voodoo, anti-witchcraft, anti-enslavement, anti-racism, anti-economic classism, etc.
    Jesus Christ said those who obey the laws of Moses are to be blessed, which includes anti-prostitution, because it is a form of enslavement and takes away a womens God given Free Will.
    We have seen repeated butchering of Christian converts all over Africa and now in America’s Underworld.
    New immigrants from Africa into America bring their own racism, hatred towards White and Fair Skinned and claim they are pro-Islam.

  • Rusty Korhonen

    Any such investigation is unnecessarily shallow. Thinking our meanings go beyond our beings is more than a little bizarre. I don’t disrespect any of our heart-felt beliefs, only their applications. I do disrespect anyone who pretends understanding is cheap or valueless.

  • IamPeaceAmongU

    These days nobody is forced into Christianity, only by free will and choice ! Missionary work is only for aid to those in need and education. Mother Theresa never asked what belief a person in need had, she first extended her arms in love. At no other time then the crusades, have Christians fought in the false name of Jesus as hard but only for land to conquer… it was a land grab lie disquised for religious benefit. Those responsible for the atrocities then have answered for their wrongs! Who has the right of vengeance, not a person on Earth… only One. Christians evolved out of that barbarism. A Christians only duty for another person is to show them The way to Christianity.

  • Alanna Hartzok

    I am so impressed with the important link that Eliza makes between religious conflicts usually having relationship to conflicts over land and other natural resources. This is the important focus we should have, how to create a world of fair sharing of the gifts of the Creator.

    Our distance learning course on Land Rights is here: http://www.course.earthrigts.net and now has people enrolled from 94 countries. You may request a scholarship if the small fee is not possible for you, and you will receive free access to all the material. The site is also an organizing tool for land and resource policy projects. Many of those working with us are from Nigeria and African countries.

    Co-director, Earth Rights Institute