Huge subject, small space: The Seattle Times asked me to review Eliza Griswold’s ‘The Tenth Parallel’ — in only 600 words. Still, am glad I said yes. The review ran Sunday, but edited further for space, so here’s the full version:
“Islam versus the West” is part of the over-heated political rhetoric now sweeping the United States. Over-heated, and wrong. In the past two decades, the two faiths have clashed most intensely and bloodily in neither the West nor the Middle East, but in Africa and southeast Asia.
Few westerners, if any, know this territory as well as Eliza Griswold. Tracing what she calls the fault line between the two faiths across the tenth parallel, the line of latitude some 700 miles north of the Equator, she points out that it’s home to more than half of the world‘s Muslims and sixty percent of its Christians. And then she takes us deep inside the fault line.
At Jakarta airport she waits to meet a jihadi killer fresh out of electroshock and waterboarding in an Indonesian prison, watching as he eases through security with two live rabbits in a cardboard box, a gift for his as-yet unseen newborn son.
She shares a helicopter with the commander of US forces in the Philippines as he talks about “the gee-watt” – military-speak for the Global War on Terror. Then she calmly looks at how “the gee-watt” has destroyed entire economies (as when the US shut down the main company in Somalia’s trust-based hawala money-transfer system on suspicion of being linked to Al Qaeda, when in fact Al Qaeda financed 9/11 by wire transfers through Florida’s Sun Trust Bank).
She listens as a 71-year-old motorcycle-riding priest in the Philippines documents the Catholic paramilitary gangs killing in the name of Christ while doing the government’s dirty work with US-supplied arms. “If this is what the war on terror is,” he says, “then it’s about terrorizing the people.”
She meets one of Somalia’s most notorious US-backed warlords, a man “with thick well-oiled curls and double-wide girth” whose thugs fleece his own population into abject poverty. Goes on night patrol with the Vice and Virtue Squad in Indonesia’s Banda Aceh, site of the disastrous tsunami on Christmas Eve 2004, as they enforce a strict Islamic morals code. Even kneels down to pray with Franklin Graham – Billy junior – whose cold-blooded evangelism helps stoke the conflict.
Yet throughout, Griswold emphasizes that religion is not the cause of conflict, but its manipulated rationale. From Nigeria to the Philippines, she shows how the battle for power and resources has been cynically cast as a battle between faiths, with the faithful used as self-destructive pawns to enrich the powerful: hopelessly corrupt politicians, ruthlessly violent warlords, flamboyantly wealthy evangelicals and Pentacostalists, hard-core Islamist extremists, and (one almost wants to say ‘of course’) the CIA, one of whose top Cold War operatives planned to ‘win’ Africa in the 1950’s and 60’s by using Islam against Communism. As his son tells Griswold: “Manipulating religious conviction was part of what my father liked to call his bag of dirty tricks. He saw religion as an ideal cold war weapon.”
Griswold writes beautifully, but all this makes ‘The Tenth Parallel’ a hard book to read. The scope is overwhelming, and yet at the same time it’s not enough. I wanted to spend more time with nearly every figure who appears in these pages – with the women doctors in a refugee camp, the insurgent commanders, the tortured jihadi now selling herbal remedies, even that well-oiled double-wide rapacious warlord.
In fact I wish Griswold had written not one but two books: one on Africa, one on Asia. Using the tenth parallel to “pull the book together,” as editors say, is a bit of a stretch – here and there, you feel her straining to make the fit — and it’s not necessary. When a reporter is this sharp and insightful, has won as many awards as Griswold, and writes this well, any reader worth his or her salt will follow her wherever she goes.