In terms of geography, the tenth parallel is simply the circle of latitude that girdles planet Earth seven hundred miles north of the equator. But in journalist Eliza Griswold’s new book, it is a “faith-based fault line” that encompasses some of the world’s hottest religious hot spots — Nigeria, Sudan, and Somalia in Africa, and Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines in Southeast Asia — and serves as a vehicle for her to explore the complicated and centuries-old conflict between Christianity and Islam.

Griswold got her inspiration for The Tenth Parallel during a visit in 2003 to Khartoum, Sudan, with evangelist Franklin Graham, the eldest son of influential preacher Billy Graham and personal pastor to George W. Bush. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Franklin Graham had denounced Islam as “evil” and “wicked” and declared that Muslims are enslaved by their religion. “Vilified by Muslims worldwide” for these statements, Graham, undaunted, saw this trip — his first to northern Sudan — as a golden opportunity to evangelize Muslim-dominated Khartoum.

At the time, the Sudanese government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was carrying out a murderous jihad against both Christians and Muslims in southern Sudan, and would soon perpetrate genocide in the western region of Darfur. Despite this bloodshed, Griswold says, Bashir hoped that a face-to-face with Graham, America’s most powerful evangelist, would “curry favor with Washington” and encourage the US to lift economic sanctions on Sudan. Griswold writes:

In Bashir’s palace’s sepulchral marble reception room, the two men argued pointedly over who could convert whom. Each adhered to a very different worldview: theirs were opposing fundamentalisms based on the belief that there was one — and only one — way to believe in God. At the same time, their religious politics spilled over into a fight between cultures, and represented the way in which the world’s Muslims and the West have come to misunderstand each other. Being a witness to this conversation was like watching emissaries from two different civilizations square off over a plate of pistachios.

Soon afterward, I started to travel in the band between the equator and the tenth parallel …. I wanted to see how Christianity and Islam are actually lived every day by huge numbers of vulnerable, marginal believers — individuals who are also part of the global story of poverty, development strategy, climate-change forecasts, and so on …. I wanted to go … where wars in the name of religion are not Internet media campaigns to “control a narrative” but actual wars fought from village to village and street corner to street corner. Most of all, I wanted to record the interwoven stories of those who inhabit this territory, and whose religious beliefs pattern their daily perseverance.

Among those whose stories Griswold records is Archbishop Peter Akinola, head of the Anglican Church of Nigeria and leader of eighteen million Anglicans. Stopping the threat that Islam poses to Christianity is his life’s work. And yet recently Akinola has also taken an antagonistic view of the “profligate West” and “liberal Western Christians,” who he believes have forsaken biblical faith and left “African Christians, already in peril among Muslims, to defend themselves against the sins of the West.” In Akinola’s view, Griswold explains, “the relationship between liberal Protestants and Islam is straightforward: if Western Christians abandon conservative morals, then the global Church will be weakened in its struggle against Islam.”

“When you have [an attack on Christians], and there are no arrests,” Akinola tells Griswold, ”Christians become dhimmi, the status within Islam that allows Christians and Jews to be seen as second-class citizens. You are subject to the Muslims. You have no rights … I’m not out to combat anybody. I’m only doing what the Holy Spirit tells me to do. I’m living my faith, practicing and preaching that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to God …. [But] I’ve said it before: let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence.”

In Indonesia, Griswold seeks out Ibnu Ahmad, a member of Indonesia’s terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Al Qaeda-connected group responsible for the bombings in Bali in 2002. Lately, however, disagreements over the definition of jihad — namely, whether or not holy war sanctions the killing of civilians — have caused divisions among JI militants.

“Although no one in JI liked to admit it,” Griswold notes, “their bombings generally killed innocent bystanders: fellow Muslims, not enemies of Islam. Ibnu Ahmad opposed the killing of fellow Muslims as a way of spreading radical Islam. In theory, he was intent on returning to the seventh-century way of life, dress, and devotion practiced by the Salafs, the first three generations of the [Prophet Muhammad’s] followers.”

The rift over jihad plays out in Ahmad’s own family. Salahuddin, his younger brother, believes that anyone who does not “espouse all-out war in the name of Islam [is] a kafir, an unbeliever, and every unbeliever must be killed” — including Ibnu Ahmad.

Crafting an unflinching, straightforward account of the tensions and turmoil on the tenth parallel is no easy feat — especially when contemplating more than two millennia of religious history and centuries of geopolitical misadventures. But in The Tenth Parallel, Griswold demonstrates an exceptional understanding of the conflict’s dimensions and succeeds in unraveling its hydra-headed nature. She also provides superbly concise portraits of the religious moderates and hard-liners, would-be reformers, missionaries, jihadis, and militants who have a stake in the conflict. “Geography [is] religious destiny,” Griswold points out — and nowhere is that more true than on the tenth parallel.

Update, August 3, 2013: Edited and moved story from our old site to the current one.

Amy O’Loughlin is a contributing writer for In The Fray.

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