Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Clash of Uncivilizations

Religions can do good and religions can do bad. Here is a Fresh Air interview with Eliza Griswold (about 20 minutes long), the author of The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the fault-line between Christianity and Islam. This looks like a fascinating book about hot places where Islam and Christianity meet and compete with each other. Often times the outcome is not very pretty (listen to the bit about Nigeria). She looks at places like Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, etc. In the interview she makes an interesting comment about evangelicals and how they may be defining the way the world looks at religion in US:
In the winter of 2003, writer Eliza Griswold traveled to the northern capital of Sudan with Franklin Graham, the evangelical leader and son of Billy Graham, to meet with Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan.
There were several reasons for making the trip. Graham wanted to ask Bashir for the right to preach to Muslims in Khartoum and in northern Sudan. (Bashir denied his request.) Griswold, meanwhile, wanted to see how Christian evangelicals had come to play such a large role in U.S. foreign policy, a topic she was researching for her book The Tenth Parallel, about the collisions between Islam and Christianity in certain parts of the world. 
She says that when someone like Graham travels to Sudan to meet with an official, he is seen as representative of what all Americans believe.
"That is one of the more dangerous realities of how conservative evangelicals abroad can shape the perception of the West," she says. "This is especially sensitive in the Muslim world. ... [And then we see] this kind of defensive posturing of Islam — that 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."
Ideological conflicts like these are not limited to Sudan, but many of them take place along the 10th parallel, the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator. More than 60 percent of the world's 2 billion Christians live along the 10th parallel — along with half the world's 1.3 billion Muslim population. Griswold spent the past seven years traveling along the latitude line and researching the places — like Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines — where Christianity and Islam collide.
Also, read the New York Times review of The Tenth Parallel here. Here is a bit about Indonesia and Malaysia:
In Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, the religious ferment mostly occurs between conservative and moderate Islam. Bouts of violence shocked the quiescent majority into defending a traditionally tranquil version of its faith and, happily, the moderates may now have the upper hand. Griswold trekked from Jakarta to the province of Aceh, meeting all sorts of Indonesians, from a terrorist leader to a bride-to-be worried she would be found not to be a virgin. Those unfamiliar with Asia may be surprised to learn that a much more draconian legal system defends and promotes Islam in tiny, prosperous Malaysia, whose oil wealth and skyscrapers coexist with measures that ban usury and ensure compliance with Shariah or Islamic law; make it illegal for a Muslim to leave the faith and forbid proselytizing by other religions — all to preserve the Malay culture and Muslim religion in this melting pot of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and aboriginal tribes like the Orang Asli, who practice animism.
But then it seems that these fights over religion and the urge to proselytize may not be that easy to explain:
The same might be said of the itinerant and intrepid author, who candidly admits that she has discovered no neat theory to explain why people fight over religion or why someone like the self-proclaimed Reverend Abdu, a former Muslim Fulani nomad, lives his life as an unpaid proselytizer or why a missionary couple in the Sudan persist although they have not converted a single soul. Sitting in Abdu’s sweltering hut one day Griswold experienced the paradoxically cooling effect of the hot tea he serves her and realizes that some mysteries cannot be solved.


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