Extended Interview with Eliza Griswold | Sojourners

Extended Interview with Eliza Griswold

I MET ELIZA GRISWOLD in a Starbucks round the corner from her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Thrumming with nervy energy, she comes off as smart, ambitious, charismatic, and intensely interested. Griswold has published one book of poetry, Wideawake Field (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Her poetry and award-winning journalism have been published in The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and Harper’s. Now in her mid-30s, Griswold grew up in various parts of Pennsylvania and moved to Chicago in 1987, when her father, Frank Griswold, an Episcopal priest, was consecrated as a bishop. (He would later serve as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in North America from 1997 to 2006.)

Eliza Griswold’s first full-length prose work is The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). In it she recounts her journeys within Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The text, although nicely larded with statistics and historical background, focuses particularly on her encounters with the men and women most vigorously engaged, on one side or the other, in the frequently violent clashes between Christians and Muslims in those countries. Where the book shines is in the way it allows you to take tea with a Jihadi leader and notice his odd habitual gestures, or the fact that he laughs less than the first time we met him. The big picture is illuminated through such exquisitely detailed miniatures.

Richard Vernon: How did you come to cover the places and issues in The Tenth Parallel?

Eliza Griswold: In 2000 I was working as a journalist on issues of religion. I was particularly interested in honor killings, in which women in Arab contexts are killed by their families because of some perceived offence against honor. I ended up selling that story, my first, to the London Sunday Times Magazine.

Very shortly after that was Sept. 11. I called the London Sunday Times and asked if they wanted me to string for them. Two weeks later I was in Pakistan with the same sneakers on, and I haven’t really looked back.

What was it like being in Pakistan so soon after Sept. 11?

Well, it was easier then than it was a few years later. At first, certainly in the North-West Frontier Province, in the capital, in Peshawar, people were excited to see Americans. When I’d first gone to the tribal areas, the Wazirs and Pashtuns were delighted to see Americans.

October 7, 2001, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, I was in a tribal area of Pakistan, Waziristan. We could hear American F-16s in the air above us, but we couldn’t see them, and the Wazirs started shooting into the sky. The idea of being invaded because of their Muslim faith, that began to change things. I was back following the battle of Tora Bora, and there was a lot of hatred for America. My third time there, the Taliban came to the village and said to the villagers, “Give us the Christian!”, because the understanding is that everybody Western is Christian, and they knew I was there. The villagers refused because I was with a very influential family; that bought us enough time to get out of there. And then the last time I was there, in 2005, I was arrested by military intelligence, and so I watched the arc go like this [her hand describes an upward curve in the air] of impossibility there in Waziristan.

[Griswold was interrogated for 12 hours and released; the Afghan journalist she was travelling with ended up in tribal prison for the next six weeks. She has never written about that experience, she says, because she is not the story, and because what happened to her colleague was so much more severe.]

What is the significance of the 10th parallel north?

Four out of five of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims don’t live in the Middle East; they live in Asia and in Africa. I wanted to go to where they physically meet with almost half of the world’s 2 billion Christians. That fault line—for reasons of centuries of human migration, geography, politics, colonialism, and other factors—happens to lie largely between the equator and the line of latitude 700 miles to its north, the 10th parallel.

This line, from West Africa through South East Asia, is for the most part where Islam and Christianity meet. Having heard so much the overblown and oversimplified notion of a “clash of civilizations,” I wanted to see what actually happens on the ground in mega-slums, in floods, in droughts, in political elections, when Muslims and Christians have to negotiate space and faith.

Is religion a flag of convenience masking other markers of say, race or wealth, when two populations come into conflict?

In every place I was over the seven years of reporting this book, where there was some conflict that involved religion, there was always a secular trigger, be it land, water, oil, elections, even crops of chocolate (in Indonesia). So religion and questions of identity were interwoven with questions of resources and political economy. But it wasn’t that one was the driving factor and the other the veneer. They simply all existed in one jumbled, tangled weave.

Do you think the jumble is fixable?

In Northern Nigeria Pastor James Movel Wuye and Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa are partners in a post-conflict situation. These guys are such avowed fundamentalists they each believe the other is going to Hell. No questions asked. Yet they have found a way to partner and keep peace in their town, while tens of thousands of people have been killed in towns very similar nearby.

They’ve done that through basic, secular community-building—community organizing, essentially. They’ve brought women into peace-building, because women have more of a vested interest in the future—they have children and are less likely to pick up arms. They have brought Muslim and Christian women together over the issue of deforestation, which is a point of conflict in Northern Nigeria.

Some people have mistaken this as me saying that secularism is the solution to these conflicts. That’s simply not reality. Rather it’s bringing in secular things that don’t trigger religious ideology.

In the book you talk a lot about the 10/40 Window—what is that?

The 10/40 Window is the space between the 10th parallel north and the 40th parallel to the north of that. It spells out the area that for many evangelical Christians today is the global nexus of God’s work. It was created, “discovered,” he would probably say, by a Brazilian evangelist named Luis Bush, who used to work at Arthur Andersen as a consultant. He decided to plug two variables into a global information system using satellite mapping. These factors were the spiritually poorest of the poor, in his terms, those who had not heard the Word, and those who lived on less than $500 a year.

So poverty plus poverty equals …

… Equals the greatest need. He had a secular company, Strategic Mapping, do this for him and what he discovered is numerically these populations fell between the 10th and 40th parallels north. It’s poverty and it’s Hinduism, Buddhism, and, primarily, Islam. Since the late ‘90s that has been a very energizing principle for many people who believe it’s their work to spread the Word. And I always say—though readers of Sojourners are going know this, readers of the New York Times are not—that proselytization does not mean conversion, it means, at its best at least, giving people the choice to either embrace that Word, or reject it.

My first idea, before this book, was that I was going to go report on undercover missionaries working in the 10/40 Window. I went to Iraq right before the war to spend time with an American woman there who was doing that, and teaching math also. The war started, and I kept in touch with her and she found that what she was really doing was teaching math. She wasn’t converting anyone. And so to spend time focusing on a handful of foreigners in this area of the world, whose work was benevolent and who weren’t in conflict, was just the wrong focus. The story was about Africans and Africans, Asians and Asians. So I decided to travel along the border where the predominantly Christian world meets the predominantly Muslim world, and just see what happens.

What is the significance of fissures within Islam and within Christianity? For instance, it seems clear that nobody wants the Taliban model of Islam to win, except for them.

And not even some of them! The central take-away of the book is that the most overlooked religious clashes of our time are those inside of religions, not between them. These are the struggles that are shaping the future of the world’s religions. This is what plays out at Ground Zero when Franklin Graham says that Barack Obama may not be a true Christian—a struggle inside Christianity of what it means to be a true believer. My father consecrated Gene Robinson, who was the first openly homosexual bishop in the Episcopal Church. My dad had to wear a bullet-proof vest under his vestments. The fear wasn’t that some Muslim terrorist was going to come out of the audience; it was that a fellow Christian, someone who didn’t share his understanding of what it meant to be a true believer, would take violent action. Those are the fault lines that we, especially we journalists, overlook—because they’re not as sexy, they don’t wrap up as neatly.

And they’re in our laundry hamper, not someone else’s.

Exactly. And within Islam those range from sectarian differences between Sufis, Sunnis, and Shia to the same questions between liberals and conservatives over whose interpretations are even possible at all. These are the questions that are determining the future of Islam.

We have to stop looking so far afield where it’s easier, and safer to look, and start asking the uncomfortable questions about the divisions that we allow or promote among ourselves.

I started with the question, “Does fundamentalism inherently lead to violence?” The binary division implicit in exclusivism necessarily posits an “other”—us vs. them, salvation vs. damnation, black vs. white. So the other becomes at best a sinner, at worst evil. Does that necessarily lead to violence?

The answer is, it’s more complicated than that. No, fundamentalism doesn’t always lead to violence, in either Islamic or Christian contexts. The most fundamentalist of fundamentalists mostly advocate a rejection of, and withdrawal from, contemporary society. There’s a disengagement from political life. It’s the doubling of religion and politics, or religion and nationalism, which gives fuel to the most dangerous fires.

The other question that we need ask even more is not “Why do they hate us?” it’s “Who do they take us to be?” We forget a few key pieces of history. In this country many of us have no idea that until very recently, maybe three decades ago, relief and aid work was a Christian enterprise in the Muslim world. So the faces of the West, to most Muslims, are Christian faces. Forget the U.N. Forget Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, you know? These are new. What’s older are Catholics and different denominations of Protestants going out into the world and doing good: schools, clinics, irrigation projects. So the understanding of the West as Christian is the historical reality.

In the same way that we misperceive Islam to be the messages of Osama Bin Laden, Muslims mistake Christianity to be Terry Jones threatening to burn the Quran, because that’s what gets picked up and globalized. So the image of the West is missionaries, soldiers (given Afghanistan and Iraq), and Britney Spears. So how can we best express our diversity more accurately? How can our silent majority be heard?

I’m tired of people asking me, “Why don’t moderate Muslims speak up?” Why don’t moderate Christians speak up? Why do we let Terry Jones own the West for the Muslims? Our silent majority needs some media training. We need people who aren’t afraid of people who speak chapter and verse of the Bible. We don’t go up against our conservatives and cite chapter and verse at them showing them where we feel they’re wrong. We just don’t get into it. We need less fear of speaking up.

Has researching and writing this book affected your own beliefs?

People asked me what I believed in the course of every interview I did, because for people whose lives are patterned by faith, that’s the principal question.

What I said to them is what I’ll say to you, because it’s the truest answer I can come up with which is: I believe in God. I believe in a unifying principle. I’m a seeker, and I feel like I’m at the beginning of a journey that this book really started me on.

My experience of spirituality in its most profound form is poetry. For me poetry has always embodied that sort of ceremonial attempt to reach God.

One of the reasons I can talk to such dangerous people on either side of this divide is that they don’t frighten me in the particular way that they frighten people who come from such a secular context that they don’t know what to do. The porousness and the authenticity of my own search has made it easier for me to ask these authentic questions, and to get time from people who understand that it’s not going to be merely, “So you killed how many people?”

Are you going to go back to any of these places?

I’m sure I will. I have a continuing responsibility to those who shared their time with me to make sure that their voices reach people who can actually help them.

There is this Soviet-trained gynecologist in Somalia named Dr. Hawa Abdi. She is 63. She has roughly 90,000 homeless people living on her family farm in Somalia. I’ve never met anyone like her. She’s remarkable. I mean she’s just remarkable. She’s received a humanitarian award here in the U.S. as a result of the book.

I’m not under any illusion that “giving voices” is of practical purpose in and of itself, but ideally it triggers something positive.

Sojourners Magazine January 2011
This appears in the January 2011 issue of Sojourners