Eliza Griswold is an award-winning journalist and fellow at the New America Foundation. Her recent book is The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (2010).
Below is the edited transcript of a public conversation with Randall Balmer, Professor of Religion at Barnard College, on November 15, 2010, at Columbia Journalism School. “Shop Talk and God Talk” is a yearlong series of conversations with professionals working on how the study of religion shapes their work and their global perspectives, organized by Lisa Miller, senior editor of Newsweek.
Randall Balmer: Eliza has had a brilliant career already, and I want you to say a little bit about how you came to this project.
Eliza Griswold: Sure, so I came to this project – maybe it would be nice to know how many people here are journalism students?
Okay, and how many people are affiliated with Religion studies, Religious studies here? I was just seeing how much shop talk to do about journalism, because it is how I came to this book, in large part. I came to this book because one of my first stories – I really became a journalist in 2000, and my background was in poetry.
And I was working at The Paris Review in ‘98/’99, for a guy named George Plimpton, who was really the pioneer of participatory journalism. And he was interested in sports. I am not interested in sports. But I did like the way in which he used himself in new journalism as a kind of figure.
And so, I went from Vanity Fair on – or I went from The Paris Review to that bastion of religious values, Vanity Fair Magazine, where I was for about six months. And then, I was working on a story there – this is sort of the long version, but I was working on a story there, assisting. I had to go to human rights watch and pick up some documents on – one of our journalists was doing a story about blood diamonds. It was kind of the exposé, and so I had to pick up these pictures from Sierra Leone. And I think the people at Human Rights Watch saw me coming a mile away and said, “You know what really needs exposure?
Honor killings. Young women who are killed by their families, young or not so young, for perceived crimes against family honor, whether that be rape or the suspicion of an affair, or whatever. And in Jordan, many young women choose to sign themselves into women’s prisons to protect themselves, rather than go home.”
And when families come to pick them up, they have to sign a document saying, “I promise I won’t kill my daughter when I take her home.” And frequently they just stop along the road and shoot their daughters anyway. And I became very involved in wanting to do this story. I left Vanity Fair to go do it, and I ended up writing it for The New Republic, and then selling it to the London Sunday Times Magazine. And that was just a couple of months before September 11th, and on that day I was here in New York, like so many of us. I called The London Sunday Times and asked if they needed a stringer. They said, “Yes.”
I went down – and two weeks later I was in Pakistan with the sneakers, the dust on my shoes from ground zero in refugee camps. And it was there that I saw, really, the role in which – you know, for so many of my editors here, seeing the role of religion in contemporary conflicts is just like, you’re an idiot of you think it has anything to do with religion. It’s about political economy. It’s about haves and have nots.
God’s just, really, a massive shadow puppet for really stupid people. And a lot of what the common thinking is. And I just kept saying, “No, you know, God – faith has a real role here.” And that’s really what brought me to this book.
Randall Balmer: Okay, great.
Eliza Griswold: That’s a long answer, but that’s for the J-school students.
Randall Balmer: Okay, and the book itself, again, is The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. And just to gloss it very quickly. The book takes us on a fascinating journey beginning with Nigeria, then to Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, all within the general reach of the tenth parallel. And showing the clash between Christianity, particularly evangelical Christianity, and Muslim – and Islam – and a particularly violent form of Islam. And I think one of the more interesting points you make in the book, among many others, is that what we’re seeing now in the world is a resurgence of both militant – let’s not use militant for want of a better –
Eliza Griswold: Effervescent? [Laughs]
Randall Balmer: Effervescent, yes, assertive Islam, as well as assertive Christianity –
Eliza Griswold: Yeah.
Randall Balmer: In the form of evangelical Christianity. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
Eliza Griswold: Sure. So you know, what we are seeing, and what we’ve been seeing for the past few decades, on both sides, are these massive revivals. Which tend to be morally conservative, and tend to be conservative in that believers feel, through seeking a personal and direct relationship with God, on either side, that they have access to knowing what God’s will is for them, because they have access to the literal word of the text.
So I know what God wants for me, and I know what God wants for you, too. How? Well, because I can read this text, and its words tell me exactly. I mean, the whole – the idea of literal interpretation, that’s an oxymoron already, right? So where that becomes dangerous is that, you know, this binary division between I am right, you are at best a sinner, at worst evil.
It sets up this us versus them, good versus evil, black versus white – division that we see. And I began the book with the question of, does this kind of binary division – does fundamentalism inherently lead to violence, because it posits one against the other? And the very simple answer to that is no. Which we know both from the history of Christian fundamentalism, as well as Islamic fundamentalism, that within these movements are those who call for a withdrawal from political and contemporary life.
You know, and I would argue that the real point of the book is not that we are seeing these two global monoliths clashing. The real point of the book is that the most overlooked religious clashes of our time are those inside of religions, not between them. They’re the struggles between Christians and Christians, Muslims and Muslims, over who has the right to be a true believer and who doesn’t. We certainly see that between – when Franklin Graham says that President Obama, may not be a true Christian. That’s what we’re seeing at work here, as we’re seeing in the rest of the world.
Randall Balmer: What I find fascinating is the way you weaved in larger issues, or maybe not larger issues, but other issues as well, including climate change, and oil. And what struck me about every country you wrote about – am I right about this? – there was a dispute about oil. The oil is, in some way, at the center of –
Eliza Griswold: There’s a lot, yeah.
Randall Balmer: If not all, but –
Eliza Griswold: If not all, quite a bit. What I’ve found, as one would imagine, is that in every single religious conflict I saw, or conflict that had taken on the colors of religion, there was a secular or worldly trigger, be it land, water, oil, even chocolate, because in Indonesia, Christians and Muslims have come to blows when global cacao prices spike, the principle ingredient in chocolate.
Christians and Muslims who battle over that land, who has the right to that land, also things have become more violent, historically. So what I was trying to do – I think, as journalists, we are so compelled for the sake of what our reader wants to flatten stories to one cause. Well, this fight is about blank, and I think, if anything, what I try to do is restore the complexity and the interwoven nature of the reality of these conflicts.
Randall Balmer: And land, of course, is a big part of that as well.
Eliza Griswold: And land is a big part of that, especially in Africa, because this is the space – if you think of Africa – if Africa is the shape of a Christmas stocking, essentially – which sort of shows you where I come from, a little subjectivity right there, underneath a suburban Philadelphia Christmas tree, while your priest father is out, as he always is on Christmas eve.
So, anyway, the northern most third of Africa. We think arid, we think desert. This is – the 10th parallel runs along the line where that desert gives way to wetter land, and essentially jungle. And it’s there where jungle begins that the tsetse fly belt begins, too. And tsetse flies carry sleeping sickness.
And so, historically, Islam could spread no farther south than that line, because where tsetse flies and sleeping sickness began, that sleeping sickness killed off the camels and horses that belonged to the Muslim traders and missionaries. And so, with the arrival of European colonialism, some missionaries, by far not the majority, explicitly targeted that line to stop Islam from winning Africa.
And it’s interesting, especially visa – vis your work, and given this 100-year cycle of exactly the same language one sees in the evangelical community today, in parts of it, is old. And that was, for me, sort of scraping through these archives looking at 100-year old mission – the light there, and looking at these documents was really seeing the history of some of, again, this language of good versus evil, light versus darkness. And in southeast Asia, in Indonesia and Malaysia and the Philippines, this is where the trade winds drop.
So, between the equator and the tenth parallel, you have patterns of wind carrying Christian and Muslim traders to the same beaches, islands, and ports, much as you had Hindus and Buddhists before them. So, people came to fight over specific trade routes. You think the spice trade, for example, and that’s how commodities became interwoven with religion for the past 500 years, when you look at the Philippines.
There’s been an Islamic rebellion in the Philippines since Ferdinand Magellan planted a cross on one of the northern islands, and was like, “This is Catholic.” And Islam was very well established there, and the Muslim leaders, who were called Datus, were like, “Not so fast, thank you very much.” So, the book tries to take that – tries to restore history to some of these questions.
Randall Balmer: And climate change, how does that figure in?
Eliza Griswold: Oh, climate change. So in much of that inland stretch of Africa, due to global warming, which we will call climate change so no one goes nuts in the audience – what’s happening is that watching the temperatures rise, there’s a pattern of desertification in many of these places. Right? So land is drying up, in part, because people are cutting down the trees for fuel. There’s a very human element to it, as well as this larger question of dryer – hotter temperatures drying the land. This is a particularly catastrophic belt.
It is, in fact, called the catastrophe belt – this place called the inter-tropical convergence zone that lies to the north or south of the equator, given the time of year. And it’s here, within this belt, which is where the trade winds meet, because these two kinds of wind meet here, wet and dry air collide, they create something called Hadley cells, and they lead to explosive flooding and droughts. These storms actually spin westward off the coast of Africa at Cape Verde.
They cross the ocean, and they create the Atlantic hurricanes. So, one of the points that the book makes visa-vis weather is that religion, like weather, binds us to each other, whether we like it or not.
Randall Balmer: You brought up the issue of your father being a priest.
Eliza Griswold: I did. I opened the door on that one.
Randall Balmer:You did. So let me quote from your book about our friend, Peter Acinola, in Nigeria.
You quote him saying, “No Christian would pray for violence, but it would be utterly naïve to sweep this issue of Islam under the carpet.” He went on, “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. And they respect me for it. They know where I stand. I’ve said before, let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence.”
And then, you go on to quote him, his views about the West, which of course have been much quoted: “The west has thrown God out, and Islam is filling that vacuum for you. And now your Christian heritage is being destroyed. You people are so afraid of being accused of being Islamophobic, and consequently, everybody – everyone recedes and says nothing. Over the years, Christians have been so naïve, avoiding politics, economics, and the military, because they’re dirty business. Missionaries taught that, dress in tatter, wear your bedroom slippers, be poor. But Christians are beginning to wake up to the fact that money isn’t evil, the love of money is, and it isn’t wrong to have some of it; neither is politics.” You want to comment on that?
Eliza Griswold: Sure. So, first let me say, you know, in terms of my own background – I found pretty early on, especially as I think so many of us in this room who’ve tried to write about other people’s religious beliefs, any attempt I have found to sort of explain away someone’s understanding of God was an utter failure and naïve at best.
So what I could do is continually own my own subjectivity and say, “This is where I come from, so this is the lens through which I’m looking.” And so, my dad, who retired, I think, three years ago, was what’s called the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church. So he was the head of the Episcopal church in the US, which is a dwindling number of believers, but about two million today. Maybe thriving in central Connecticut. So –
Randall Balmer: Two million on a good day.
Eliza Griswold: Okay, so one of the most controversial things that happened while my dad was the presiding bishop was the election of the first openly homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, of New Hampshire. And part – he was democratically elected, and part of my dad’s job as presiding bishop was to consecrate him, which is the act that makes another person a bishop.
And to do that my dad had to wear a bulletproof vest underneath his vestments. The understanding wasn’t that some, you know, Muslim fanatic would come out of the audience. It was that a fellow believer, a fellow Christian, who believed homosexuality to be outside the purview of the faith, would take – would decide to be violent – right? – would shoot someone. It didn’t happen, thankfully.
Part of the opposition movement is led by – part of the most vocal opposition movement is led by Peter Acinola, who is the archbishop of the Episcopal church, the Anglican – actually, the Anglican church in Nigeria, which has to America’s two million, 23 million members. So, this man is very, very openly – takes a very open stance against homosexuality, as well as other immoral values that he believes to be coming from a secular west. Right?
His understanding, and this is a very – I think it’s really important for us to understand, how is African Christianity, especially in this region, so outspoken, even about the use of violence sometimes? And the answer is that, along this belt, and this is certainly Peter Acinola’s experience, many of the people who now make up the Christian faith, who were traditionally – before they were Christians, they were indigenous believers.
They were, essentially, you know, the old language for them would be they were pagans. They followed faiths that – these guys were hill tribes, in this particular area, which means that the Muslims lived to the north, and it was okay to enslave the non-Muslims. And so, they slave raided among many of the ethnic groups along this belt. So, Peter Acinola’s understanding of Islam, and that of many of his followers, is that this is a faith out to enslave them, and that Christianity is the ideological backbone with which they can fight back against this tradition.
So they feel – I mean, and there’s another man in the book who lives not far away, who said to me, “Thank God for your 911. Finally you get it.” Right? “We’ve been suffering under Islam for centuries, and now, finally, you understand what’s happening.” So, that is a really – we don’t get – I certainly didn’t get that.
And a lot of writing this book was trying to restore to, you know, even liberal Christians in this country. Like, how can they say that Islam – how can they be so violent? Well, they have their own history, and this is where many come from. So Peter Acinola’s comments are firmly rooted in that history.
Randall Balmer: You make the point, at one point in the book, that tolerance is, for the people you write about, a western construct. And it is for many on both sides of this religious divide, a sign of cultural relativism. In other words, we Americans are tolerant – or at least we like to think we’re tolerant. And the reason we’re tolerant is that we have no values, or we’re entirely relative in our values.
Eliza Griswold: Yeah, we’re rich and lazy. Yeah.
Randall Balmer: Yeah, okay, all right.
Eliza Griswold: That’s it. You know, we get in our SUVs. We go to church only on Sundays. We’ve lost our sense – I mean, this wasn’t in the course – I was in eastern Congo a few years ago doing some reporting. And I was driving on a logging road. I wasn’t driving, a man was driving me. And you know, there had been a terrible massacre, and the rebels who’d come in an perpetrated this massacre were able to do so only because of the logging road. So, and they had attacked these pygmies. We were going to meet them.
And we got into this talk late at night about homosexuality – right? – as you do on a Congoese road late at night. And you know, I couldn’t believe the rage with which this man was speaking, saying, “You know, you may have brought us the bible, but you left it here, and now it is our job to bring it back to you.” You know? As well as this – you know, so both Christianity and Islam, in many of these contexts, see themselves in opposition to the west.
Right? So it’s not just Islam that’s out there saying, you know – let me talk more specifically of Nigeria, for example, the adoption of Shariah, Islamic law in the north is very clearly, you know, western democracy has failed us. It’s corrupt. We’d like to actually get to court in the next ten years. We wanna be able to afford lawyers. There are some very practical pieces to it. For the Christians as well, there is, “The west has failed us.”
And the very, very alive understanding, especially in the Sudan, that Christianity, according to tradition, has been in Sudan since 37 AD, four years after Jesus’ death, with Phillip’s conversion of the first – the Sudanese eunuch in Jerusalem. It doesn’t say in the Bible that – but many African Christians believe that this man then returned to Africa and brought Christianity there.
So there’s very much this sense of liberation theology, a kind of conservative liberation theology that, we are not of you. We are true Christians. And don’t mistake your relativism and your wealth for Christianity, because it’s not.
Randall Balmer: Let’s talk for a minute about religion and identity. You make the case in, I think, the chapter on Malaysia that the Oram Naslee, a group that had, until recently, has been very isolated, see Christianity as a means of cultural resistance against Islam.
Eliza Griswold : Yes, absolutely. So this is a community – the Oram Naslee are the last indigenous people, the last aborigines. There are about 100,000 of them left on the Malay peninsula. And once again, roads have a major factor in how they’ve gone from an isolated group to, you know, entering the modern world, whether they like it or not; again, logging. Logging is a major force that has brought missionaries in to them, even the Baha’is. There is a big Baha’i presence among the Oram Naslee, who live primarily in tree houses. So, I spent some time with the Oram Naslee, and the way that it works in Malaysia – so in Malaysia, 24 million people, tiny country. Right?
The Malay majority has a very slim political majority, less than 51-percent, between 50 and 51. And what does it mean to be Malay, ethnically Malay? Well, in the constitution it says, to be Malay is to be Muslim. And so, one way in which this very narrow political majority hangs onto its power, its political power and its economic power, is to try to bring people to Islam.
And among those people are these Oram Naslee, who follow their indigenous beliefs, which means they really worship land and sky and sea. Well, not sea, sort of sea, but more land and sky. So there are government sponsored missionaries who come in to work among the Oram Naslee, and they actually are incentivized to marry Oram Naslee women. You get $3,000.00, and a woman – that woman would convert to Islam. So I actually attended a wedding where one of these women had – an Oram Naslee woman was marrying a Muslim, and the family was enraged.
And the father was enraged, in particular, because he had converted to Christianity. Because when you convert to Islam, you become Malay. You lose your aboriginal identity entirely. And so, for many of the Oram Naslee, if you become Christian, you don’t lose your Oram Naslee – you’re still Naslee, as they say, because you’re not part of dominant culture, and you’re able to hang onto your – what you eat, and what you you know, what you do.
So there’s – the anthropologists, with raised eyebrows, call this contest the race to save the last lost souls. And you see, I mean, the government comes in and knocks down churches, and south Korean missionaries come marching in, in you know, fast herds, and I mean, it’s really otherworldly to watch. It’s like watching the forces of modernization converge on these tiny villages, which are set in the trees. So that was a very powerful experience for me.
Randall Balmer: It comes through. If you haven’t gathered already, this is really an extraordinary book, and well written, and adventuresome, I have to say. And I want to talk about – and move – and I want to open this up to questions in a minute – talk a little bit about your experience as a journalist, and particularly – again, for those of you who haven’t read the book – Eliza goes into all sorts of places – I would think twice, or three, or four times about it, including prisons to meet with some rather shady characters. And I want you to reflect a little bit, and maybe tell us a little bit more about your experiences, particularly as a woman working in a Muslim context.
Eliza Griswold: You know, the little secret of being a journalist and a woman in the Muslim – a woman who’s a journalist in the Muslim world, is that it’s easier. You know, first of all, I always wore, out of a gesture of respect, whatever people were wearing. And you know, most violence in any situation, but especially in some of these war zones, is random. So if you’re in Somalia – well, Somalia may be an exception – but if you’re in Nigeria for – no, Nigeria is another exception – if you’re somewhere, and you know, somebody comes up to your car with an AK-47 or something, and they’re thinking they’re gonna kidnap whoever’s in that car, and they see you’re a woman you get – first of all, there’s the shock value.
You get away faster. You need 15 seconds, or 20, and you’re okay. The other thing is that it’s ethically, morally, religiously more complex to kidnap a woman. It’s also more expensive. You have to have a woman to watch her. You know, so there – that doesn’t mean that many of my colleagues haven’t been kidnapped and have, you know, suffered terribly in that situation, as women, but as a general rule, it is a bit easier.
And when you’re talking to somebody who’s super powerful and you think, “Oh, will you get the same access?” They’re speaking to whatever organization that you’re working for. They’re speaking with the New York Times Magazine. They’re not too concerned about the personality they’re encountering. So I did not – you know, I mean, there were some situations that I actually didn’t put in the book, because it’s not about those situations, where you know, things got very hairy. There was a mob attack in – I was attacked by a mob in Nigeria, that called itself the Taliban.
And we’d been hearing about – no one had heard of these guys at this time, and now we’re hearing about this Boco Haram. It was in their town, in Mydugary, and there – I was, you know, in some bad shelling in Somalia, oddly, in a mental hospital. That was surreal. But besides that, yeah, I mean, one of my friends, who’s also a journalist, was like, “It’s so weird that people are talking about how dangerous this was, because you were so bored so much of the time.” And I was like, “Yeah, the biggest danger was dying of boredom in some of these villages.” Like, day after day, is anybody gonna come down the road but a goat? So, anyway.
Randall Balmer: And can you tell us about your encounter with Franklin Graham?
Eliza Griswold: Oh, Franklin Graham. So, Franklin Graham, in 2003, was going to meet – okay, so Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, had a half billion-dollar evangelical empire, and was going in 2003 to the northern Sudan for the first time in history, to meet with President Bashir, who, at the time, had just begun to commit the war crimes that he committed in the Sudan. And so, he – and now he’s the only standing president indicted by the international criminal court.
Anyway, so Franklin Graham had called Bashir just as evil as Saddam Hussein, if not more so. And Bashir, historically, has bombed some of Graham’s hospitals in the south. So these two men were – Graham was very much in the news for calling Islam a wicked and evil religion at the time. And so, when I found out he was going to northern Sudan to meet Bashir, I asked if I could go. And the two men sat down and began this conversation, trying to convert one another to their respective faiths, and that didn’t go terribly well.
And then, soon after, most of us were ushered out into the driveway, and Graham remembered that he had in his pocket a George W. Bush 2004 reelection pin, in the pocket of his blue blazer. He was wearing ostrich skin, hand-made cowboy boots. So he reached into his pocket and he handed this pin to Bashir, and he said, “Mr. President, I understand you’ll be speaking to my president later today.
Why don’t you tell him you’re his first voter here in the Sudan?” And Bashir took the pin. And so, what is that encounter about? Well, to my mind, that encounter is really about how faith and foreign policy are intertwined in ways we, as American citizens, have no idea. This certainly didn’t end under the Bush administration. And when people say to me, “Well, how is it that, you know, four out of” – a statistic I usually begin with – “four out of five of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are not Arabs.
They don’t live in the Middle East. They live in Africa and Asia.” And people say, “Well, how is it they think we’re all Christians, because we’re so much more diverse than that?” And part of it, you know, is this history of a Christian west, is that until recently, all aid work, all relief work, was mission work. It’s only in the past few decades that we’ve had Human Rights Watch, and the UN coming in, as well as the fact that so much of the face of our foreign policy is – has appeared in the face of evangelical preachers in the – certainly over the past couple of decades.
And there is very much – that has a major impact, and a major legacy. And that’s sort of an unexplored – I would love for people to take that up. Who’s been where – besides Franklin Graham, who’s been where in the Muslim world, and what kind of blow-back have those visits led to? Because they didn’t end with George W. Bush.
Randall Balmer: And you had a particular involvement with Franklin Graham as well.
Eliza Griswold: Oh, yes. I will – I was about to say something very naughty, but I think we’re on the record here. But I still speak to Franklin Graham on a regular basis. I called him after he made these comments about Obama not being a true Christian, and asked, “What are you talking about?” So we’re – I still have a great deal of respect for Franklin Graham.
And he asked me to pray with him when I was in the Sudan. He asked me if I was sure that, if my plane crashed, I’d be going to heaven. And when I told him, no, he asked me to pray with him. The answer to what happened next I will leave you – it’s in the book.
Randall Balmer: It’s in the book. And I’ll ask – I’ll mention one more thing. And really in deference to my colleague, Elizabeth Castelli, who’s written wonderful things about martyrdom – you – I recorded an encounter with a young Mennonite woman, a teenager, who – I’ll let you tell the story, but I found that very poignant and really quite touching.
Eliza Griswold: So, doing this work, doing this reporting, pretty early on I came in contact with many Christian groups that spoke a lot about Christian – contemporary Christian martyrdom. One of them being, you know, one of the premier Christian demographers, Todd Johnson, who is very involved in world Christian trends, and the world Christian encyclopedia. And he brought to my attention the phenomenon of Christian martyrdom, that he and David Barrett, who’s – primarily, it’s his work – that many Christians believe that there are 70 million Christian martyrs to Islam’s 80 million.
The majority of whom became martyrs in the 20th century. Now, that experience, as this demographer told me, is not Joan of Ark type martyrdom. It’s like modern martyrdom. It’s like Idi Amin going into a village and wiping out all the Christians.
So, it’s very important to understand how Christian martyrdom can be a lightning rod, and that one of the paradoxes is that, in places where Christianity, like Islam, is mostly under fire – here too we see most statistical growth. So this demographer was sitting with a group of conservative Christians years ago, in England, who said, “How can we spread the faith faster?” And David Barrett said to them, “More martyrs, because that mobilizes people.”
So, I went to a conference in Franklin, Tennessee, in a place for voice of the martyrs, which is an organization that looks at the very real phenomenon of Christian martyrdom and persecution. Right? How are religious minorities treated? They’re only interested in Christians, and in some cases, I found some distortion of the terms of people’s lives and deaths. They were seen only through a religious lens, where a lot of times there were politics involved. Anyway, I was with this remarkable woman, Gracia Bernham, whose husband was killed.
Martin Bernham was killed by – well, he was killed by the Pilipino military in a rescue attempt, when they were held by an Al-Qaida linked group called Abu Sayaf group in the Philippines, in 2000/2001. Nobody paid too much attention. When we heard Al-Qaida and we made the linkage that these guys were with an Al-Qaida linked group, the world went nuts, and paid a lot of attention to the Bernhams. On one of the – it was the fifth rescue attempt – Martin was shot and killed.
Gracia was shot in the leg. And I went with her to this conference in Franklin, Tennessee, to hear her talk about martyrdom. And a little young Mennonite girl named Mercy Grace came up to her, and she had come from Baghdad, Kentucky with her family. And she said, “I think it would be really neat to be a martyr.” So, it was really interesting to watch that whole dynamic unfold. And really, you know, this is really sensitive reporting.
I think, as all of us who write about religion know, context is essential, because people will say some of the most sensational – you know, you take that line out of context, stick it on the internet, and my God, people could be killed for it. So really, when I began the book, I started reporting on undercover missionaries, missionaries who had gone into the Muslim world, in countries where they were not legally allowed to be – they call it creative access – to work among Muslim communities.
And very early on, I decided I was not going to write that book, because it put too many people at too much risk for – in places where, usually, they hadn’t converted anyone at all. And there’s a family involved in this work in the Sudan, who’s in the book, who run an aerobics studio. So that’s a pretty creative access, I would say. Anyway, I think I’ll leave that there.
Randall Balmer: Great. All right, questions from the audience?
Question: I’m a student here at the journalism school. I’m actually from North Carolina, and I – Franklin Graham goes to the church where I grew up. My question has to deal with how people of different faiths, especially Christianity and Islam, interact when they’re not in their home countries, and they come to a place like New York. Because I have seen a lot of communities here that – the countries they come from don’t get along. But then, here, they live in close proximity with no problem. Is that the case between Christianity and Islam, and are there certain things we can take from that lesson here, to take back to their home countries?
Eliza Griswold: So – okay, so people coming here and getting along better. Yes, I think, to some degree. I think yes, and no. I mean, I would say Sudan would be a good example, especially now, because there’s so much tension between the north and the south in this lead up to this referendum.
My apologies. In this lead up – I’m speaking specifically about time. I’m not really supposed to, but in this lead-up to the referendum that’s scheduled for January ninth 2011 – in the next few months, where southern Sudan will have the right to vote for the first time in history whether it would like to become an independent country, or remain part of the north. The two, north and south Sudan, have a history of four years of civil war and the death of two million people.
And a lot of this divide comes out of the history of Christian missionaries drawing a line along the 10th parallel, and making it illegal for Christian missionaries to work – sorry, the British colonialism – colonialists making a line along the 10th parallel, and saying, “Christian missionaries, no trouble among Muslims. You stay to the south where there are no Muslims.” And so, the history of this divide has led to so much trouble. And so, today, in communities outside of the Sudan, you do see exactly what you’re saying.
You do see northern and southern Sudanese people who might have a lot of trouble at home, especially right now, getting along. Are there lessons about that? You know, I think it’s more like the enemy of my enemy is my friend, unfortunately. You know that in places where there are some – people bond over similarities – and geography is a great similarity to have – which is why I know you and Franklin Graham are so close.
[Laughs] But there was something else. You know, people coming here in the practice of their religion, I would love to see more work around reverse mission, you know, the guy who – the Congolese man who said to me, “You know, you may have brought the Bible here, but you left it with us, and it’s our time to bring it back to you,” was talking about missionaries coming here and bringing traditional – bringing Christianity back to the lost sheep, who are many of us.
Randall Balmer: That’s what Acinola’s all about, right?
Eliza Griswold: That’s what Acinola’s all about, and politics, yeah. So, I don’t know if I really answered your question. I hope so.
Question: Yeah, thank you.
Randall Balmer: Someone else?
Question: I’m an MA student here at the journalism school. In the western imagination of Islam, the concept of jihad, and violent jihad, looms very large. And that it’s mainly, in modern times, has been operationalized in Muslim countries that have been seen to be occupied by western powers, or the Soviet Union in the case of Afghanistan. To what extent did the concept of jihad come up in these countries that you visited, where there are these fault lines between Islam and Christianity? And then, secondly, is there – if it did, is there any mirroring concept in some of the Christian traditions that you came into contact with, that you know, played a similar role?
Eliza Griswold: So – okay, so Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, 240 million people, 9 out of 10 of them Muslims. The most vibrant and diverse manifestations of this religion that are intertwined with those ancient patterns of sailors. So you have Islam infused with Buddhism, syncretic – which is a word I probably wouldn’t use that many places, but I’ll use it here – so you have these blended faiths.
You also have a very violent form of political jihad, I mean, violent jihad, that’s runs by a group linked to Al Qaida called Jama Islamia, who – and these guys, the old guys, the old guard among them, terrorists, openly, went to Afghanistan to train with Khaled Sheikh Mohammed and other people. They were in Al Qaida’s camp in the Sadar Mountains. Okay, so they were on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
So, one of these guys I spent the most time with in Indonesia, and he came back and he showed Khaled Sheikh Mohammed around Jakarta, ‘cause Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, one of the architects of 911, was looking to buy bicycles, weirdly enough, for Afghanistan, and this guy took him around. Then, he went to one of the outlying islands, the place where Insolowaysee – where Christians and Muslims fought over cacao, and he taught local Muslims how to wage jihad against local Christians.
And I went back with him to those battlefields. I paid for his air ticket. And one of his wives lived on this island, so it was in his interest – he wanted to go back and see her. So, now, what happened on Insolowaysee, is that you had these violent dudes, like Farhin Imnuhamed would come in and say to people, “You’re under attack. Christians are gonna get you. You have to fight back. This is how.”
Eventually, the locals turned against these outsiders and were, like, “You know what? Get out of here. We don’t want your Arab Islam. We don’t want your short pants.” So there had been a reaction against this violent form of Islam that was very visceral. And now, Farhin Imnuhamed and his cronies, who trained in Afghanistan, who are called the “Afghan Vets,” are selling Islamic Mary Kay cosmetics. They are in Jakarta.
One of these dudes – Al-Qaeda linked guys, got home and was, like, “We need money, so we’re making beauty powders.” And I mean, really, it’s over the top. So tracing his evolution was really interesting to me, because what we’ve seen in Indonesia is what it looks for a community to move beyond the jihad, which is now, Farhin Imnuhamed’s little brother is still in prison for joining a violent splinter group, which still exists.
So, again, the clash between – I mean, the clash within. What we are really looking at, the most important divisions, are the splintering within each side. Or how these brush-ups between these virulent, conservative, sometimes violent branches split from the mainstream, the so-called silent majority. And what you see in Indonesia is that so-called silent majority, like the Colbert, you know, Jon Stewart moment of the march has happened.
Like, that most Indonesians are, like, “Enough. Enough, you cuckoo nuts. We’re taking our country back.” And that’s really happened politically. Christians? 100-percent. In Nigeria, very – the idea of onward Christian soldiers being a literal call to arms, and the idea of – you know, Human Rights Watch has done some very great work about some massacres, where Christians surrounded an Islamic town called Yawa and massacred everybody inside it.
That was 900 people, including people lying in hospital beds. So, does it happen on both sides? Absolutely.
Question: I’m actually not a student here at Columbia, but I work for an organization called Tannenbaum, that does religious diversity issues. Yeah, and I work in their conflict resolution program. Which one of the main things that we do is identify religiously motivated peacemakers working in conflict zones around the world. And I think I’ve heard you speak before about Pastor Jameson, Emam Ashaffa in Nigeria –
Eliza Griswold: Yeah.
Question: So I know that you’re sort of familiar with these kinds of figures. And I was just wondering, a lot of the peacemakers that we have identified have been working in inter-religious conflicts, like between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, or around the world, or Jews and Muslims in Israel and Palestine. And you’ve been talking a lot about intra-religious conflict.
And I was wondering if you had seen any examples of peacemakers, of individuals working to resolve conflicts within their religions, and how that plays out in these areas?
Eliza Griswold: So you mean intra-religious peacemakers?
Question: Right, like Muslims from different factions of Islam, or you know, ____ trying to reconcile that.
Eliza Griswold: Trying to – well, I would – totally. I would say that this: that Emam Ashaffa is one of them. So these guys, who – what’s your name?
Question: My name is Kirsten.
Eliza Griswold: Kirsten. These guys who Kirsten’s talking about are a Nigerian pastor and an imam who are both self avowed fundamentalists, each believes the other is going to hell without question. They also do the best inter-faith work I’ve ever seen in practical terms on the ground. I am going to be honest. Growing up as the PK, as the pastor’s kid, you hear inter-faith, and you just wanna go to sleep.
But there is substantive inter-faith work going on, and in practical terms, I think it’s around community building. So what these guys do, essentially – the pastor has one arm. Why? Because the imam’s boys lopped it off in fighting about 15 years ago, fighting over a market. Their experience of religious conflict is visceral and historic.
So, what the imam does is – so there’s a lot of fighting in northern Nigeria between a group that calls itself the Shia, by which they mean, they’re social reformers and somebody went to Iran with some money for studying years ago, and when I was last there, they had posters of Moqtad Al-Sadr and the Ayatollah on the walls of mud huts. That’s the extent of what Shia means. And they were fighting between them and Sunni hardliners, and then, you know, a Sufi majority, guys who would sing and dance and show up at your house, and for $20.00, when you had a child, or you were getting married, do a little performance. So there was fighting between these groups.
Really, the Shia and Sunni hardliners were fighting against everybody else. So the imam, this peacemaking man, isn’t only making peace with Christians through things like, well, let’s go out and we’re going to buy stoves – one of the things that Christians and Muslims fight about in northern Nigeria is firewood, because there’s none left. It’s part of this deforestation. So these guys will be, like, “Here’s a low wood burning stove, Christian/Muslim women. We can’t afford it, but if you give us $100.00 in some way, together” –
It’s pretty innovative work. It’s Community Building and Organizing 101. The imam does the same thing with Muslims, but not as successfully, because to be frank, he’s not seen as religiously legitimate by hardliners because of his association with Christians. And that’s where it gets hard, because in this country, too – and I’d say this even from my experience with my dad – how moderates are not seen as legitimate religious leaders in hard-line circles.
So it’s very hard to build those kinds of bridges, but it’s not impossible. And my experience of religious peace-building is really when people have lost enough that they have to find a way to make peace, because they have no cows, they have no schools, their kids have been killed. That’s when they are willing to look beyond traditional divisions and stop – both the pastor and imam really taught young people to fight.
And now they use that literal scripture to restore more context and teach kids how to – like, we misunderstood when we said, you know, “Sell your cloak and buy swords.” Buy a sword, which is the Christian Bible. So, anyway, I hope that answered that. Just a little rambling.
Question: I’m a religious studies and journalism student down at NYU. I was just wondering how you got this funded? Like, how did you do it?
Eliza Griswold: Good question.
Question: And you said that people don’t talk to you, they talk to the organization you’re representing.
Eliza Griswold: Okay, so how did I pay for this? As a freelance journalist, which is one reason – you know, I came of age at a particular time in the journalism business, when it was easier to be freelance. I don’t know if I’m part of a new model, because I’ve been sort of out of the game for a while writing this book.
But there was a lot of money floating around right after, you know, 911. It didn’t look like it looks like now. Everybody – there was this call to try to understand the world, especially in terms of religion. And it was easy to get assignments, foreign assignments. Not so now, right? So, but the true – like, the model of journalists now, I am a fellow at the New America Foundation. Now they don’t give me that much, but for a while they funded most of this project.
So I could cobble it together. I would, like, call the New York Times Magazine and say, “I wanna go to the Sudan. I wanna go to the 10th Parallel, to this town called Abiyah, where it’s” – and they’d say, “Dream on. What do we care about this town? But what if you take Roger Winter, this former US envoy to that town? If he’ll go with you, you can do it, and then you can stay on and do book stuff.” So I’d, like, game it, you know, and just try to get these little pots of money together, and then do fellowships. I was a Neiman fellow up at Harvard. That was a year. New America was four years. So between fellowships and freelance journalism, it was possible to do it.
Question: I was just wondering whether you think of any of the increased tension amongst Muslims and Christians in west Africa might not be precisely because Europeans really aren’t any longer involved. And there may be a few medical missionaries left, and some Catholic religious orders, and some people conducting schools, but a long time ago they sort of realized that you can have Muslim students in your classes, but you don’t dare attempt to convert them.
But that the local indigenous African Christians have no hesitation about trying to spread the gospel to their Muslim neighbors. And whereas Muslims have traditionally thought, “Well, we are actually very tolerant, because as the Saudi foreign minister once argued to me, we are the most tolerant, because we recognize Jesus as a prophet. We recognize Moses as a prophet. I know it isn’t my Jesus, or my Moses, and it’s a different character” but that there’s a certain kind of ideological toleration that Muslims proclaim. And I’m just wondering whether you think that this very assertive African Christianity, which doesn’t hesitate the way western Christians do wutg confronting Muslims, because like anybody else that’s un-churched, they feel that they want to try to convert.
Eliza Griswold: Yeah. Well, I think that’s definitely a factor in the uptick in violence. Another is that, in most of the countries along the 10th Parallel, and really between the equator and the 10th Parallel, which is where I was travelling, these are weak states, if not utterly failed. And so that the failure of European models, the perceived failure of European models, including democracy has led people to seek their own models in more aggressive terms.
Also, the odd – you know, there’s always a both/and in these answers, right? One of the statistical realities is that new democracy in many of these countries that are both Christian and Muslim leads to more violence, because the idea that both religion and democracy are numbers games, that suddenly it matters how many believers you have, is a lived reality.
In Nigeria, in particular, where questions – you know, 140 million people equally split between Christians and Muslims. How many of each? We really don’t know. Why? Because it’s too dangerous. During the last census, the government decided it was too dangerous to ask questions about religious affiliation, given the history of violence and the reality of violence. So, democracy – that’s a quote from, you know, a Muslim named Abdulahi Abdulahi, who’s a human rights lawyer, who’s – you know, democracy, like religion, is a numbers game.
So definitely the absence of European colonialists – maybe not that as much as the aggressive and effervescent forms of Christianity that are growing, absolutely. The tendency toward proselytization among Muslims where there wasn’t before, and the absolute self-aware reality that whoever has more believers in a weak or failed state, and even in a new democracy, is going to win that fight.
Question: I was wondering if you could tell us about that conversation you had with Franklin Graham about Obama not being a very good Christian? ’m just curious, because the conversation about that usually is around him being a good Christian or not, and it’s not very often about the fact that we’re having a conversation to prove that he’s not a Muslim is problematic. And I’m also curious – you know, I don’t know if you have noticed – if you’ve been to Indonesia, or these countries since Obama’s election, and if you just have any anecdotal information about how he, and America, is now perceived.
Sure. So, to the first question – so, here’s a J-school answer. When I called Franklin Graham – you know, Graham was out there saying, “Well, I don’t know whether Obama’s a true Christian or not.” And I called him and said, “You know, you say you abhor politics as a true believer, and that’s the most political thing I’ve ever heard. And also, as an evangelical of your bent, what do you care what he was born? Isn’t the whole thing that if he’s made a decision for Christ, that’s what matters?”
And so I had this conversation with him. I called my editor at The Daily Beast and was, like, “Do you guys want this? I just” – and she said – and I loved this – she said, “No. You know why? Because we don’t need to be the mouthpiece for Franklin Graham.” And I thought, you know, I really like that. You know, screw the access, or the, like, “We got Franklin Graham.”
Forget it. You know, why would we further these beliefs, which that would largely be? Anyway, I thought that was good. But, so what he said – so I’ll further them now – what he said is that, when Obama was running for president, he had a conversation – Graham and Obama had a conversation in which Obama said to Graham, “You know, I didn’t go to church until I became a community organizer on the south side of Chicago.
And the elders in the community said to me, ‘You cannot organize among our people unless you go to our churches.’” And that’s when he started going to Reverend Jeremiah’s church, and when – and for Graham, that – even thought the United Church of Christ involves a confession of sins, for Graham, that was not enough. That was not enough of a decision to legitimately mark him as a true Christian, especially given his tolerant stance toward Islam. That’s his answer.
Question: And what about the problem that we’re even having that conversation?
Eliza Griswold: It’s so appalling. I mean, where do you begin? You know, that it’s a problem that we’re having the conversation. And if you were a Muslim, so what? I had to do this thing on 20/20 that was all about, well, if he’s a Muslim, can’t he lie to us under tachia?
You know, he can say that – he can get us – and this lunatic – there’s a group out there – you guys should all take this on. There’s something called “White Roses,” which is put together by a bunch of Muslims who are no longer Muslims, about the true Islam and how it’s really out to get the Christian west. And it’s caught on among mainstream public to the extent that, you know, it isn’t just that they perceive Obama to be a Muslim, and that’s a problem. It’s that he now follows these sort of Salafi principles. It’s cuckoo nuts. It’s a problem, you know, it’s a huge problem.
Question: I teach religious studies down at the ____ school. And I wanted to pick on your little throw away about the word syncretic. And where you can’t use it, and why not, and what you would use in its place. And I guess I have a larger question behind that, which is, how – and I’m not a J-school person, but I’d love your J-school answer – how can you convey to the general public that doesn’t know that much about religion that the most extreme, demanding, rigorous forms of religion are not necessarily the defaults? Because my sense is that the way in which religion is widely understood – and this goes back to the question about moderates, the difficulty of sort of representing the moderates. Inter-faith, all these things are very difficult to depict to people who don’t understand, as you show in your book, that there’s more different within religious traditions than there is between them.
Eliza Griswold: Okay, so I mean, using the word syncretic, where wouldn’t I use it? I wouldn’t use it in a place where I thought it might turn off people to the point they wouldn’t listen. Oh, God, more of this jargon, right? And I might use “blended,” or “it’s a mix of things,” instead. Why is it a problem? Simply because it’s a language.
You know, I don’t know calculus, and a lot of people don’t know religious terminology. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not informed about religion, although they’re not. And you’re absolutely right, and one of the questions that I get all the time is, “Why don’t moderate Muslims speak up?” Who would listen? We listen to those who speak in sound bites. We listen to those who threaten to burn the Koran. We listen to those who threaten to kill us.
And so, why should the majority of the world’s Muslims see the Christian West as unthreatening, when they see as aggressive a stance toward them, whether it’s soldiers or it’s pastors – I mean, they get the same kind of violent sound bites we do, just the mirror image. So, how do bring that understanding – I mean, through stories, essentially, I think. I mean, for me, that’s the way in. Like, how do you get to people? You tell them something they wanna hear.
Tell them a good story, and have in it the person who represents that kind of middle way. But it’s hard. I mean, don’t we know it? You know, it’s hell hard to do it, because nobody wants to hear it. You know, I know – again, and I rarely talk about my dad this much, but he speaks in full paragraphs. You can’t get a sound bite out of that dude. You know, and the British people love him. He’s always, like, “Oh, the BBC called again.”
We have never called. No one calls him from this country. Why? I wouldn’t quote him. It’s impossible. It’s like Cornell West. You know, it doesn’t really play that well, you know. Anyway, I don’t know if that answers a little bit.
Randall Balmer: Okay, one more question.
Question: My question was more about the way that you do your work when you’re in other parts of the world. And especially about language barriers, and how you work with translators, or interpreters, and what might get lost in translation. I’m not – I mean, I’m probably making an assumption that you don’t speak all of the languages of all of the places that you go. I’m just wondering about how that – the language barrier works for you – and works against you, and how you deal with it.
Eliza Griswold: Sure. So, in most of the countries in Africa, I’m thinking particularly in Nigeria and the Sudan were former British colonies. And so, because the religious leaders tend to be the most educated people in the community, most spoke English. So there, I was in pretty good shape; Somalia, too, actually. I relied on translators, and I was really never alone. I was always with either – what we call in journalism a “fixer,” a local journalist, or an NGO worker, or the pastor and the imam, you know.
They have a gold minivan that says on the back, “Peace is divine.” I borrowed the minivan and their driver. So I would always have some local – usually, some local person. And so, language was not usually a problem, because in most places people spoke English to a degree that surprised me. And quite a bit, obviously, can get lost in translation. I mean, that Acinola passage, if that – if he weren’t speaking English, I would never use that. Right?
And I am one who errs on the side – I’ve had fact checkers at magazines, and they’re like, “You’re – can you shut up?” Because I qualify everything, right? I’m too careful. I’m sure that’s a lie, like, oh, whatever. But language is a problem, you know, but in most of the reporting for the book it wasn’t. I tend – of course I gravitate toward people speaking English. You know, I’m sure there are many interesting people in these communities who I didn’t seek out, or met and didn’t interview with the depth, because they didn’t speak English.
Randall Balmer: Well, I’ll reserve the prerogative of the chair to ask the last question. You’ve written a book about inter-religious relations along the 10th Parallel. Can you provide some wisdom for us in your standing inter-religious or dealing with inter-religious relationships down in Battery Park?
Eliza Griswold: Oh, man. You know, I just think that there’s a call to that silent majority. This is our call. This is our time to speak up to not let our politics be hijacked by those who say they speak in the name of God, in an easy kind of speak.
I mean, I just couldn’t believe that people with the Lincoln Memorial, people always say, “Don’t talk about Glenn Beck,” but you know, this is not politics. I’m just gonna talk about God today. What a joke! That is explicitly political, and I think we need to get – as moderates, we have to get – it’s scary to take on these guys. A lot of – it’s not fun. I mean, it can be fun, but with Franklin Graham, I mean, these guys know chapter and verse. Do I know chapter and verse? No.
Am I a legitimate – I’m sociologically a Christian, because of my background, but like, we need to be comfortable – our moderate leaders need to be more comfortable, whether they’re Muslim or Christian, saying, “You know what? I’m not going to quote verse to you if I can’t, but I am going to speak up and say that you don’t own God.”
Randall Balmer: I’m sure I speak for everyone in saying, “Thank you.”