Liberal Orientalism can be just as misguided as the more conservative variety. One recent example, a book by a young American journalist/poet named Eliza Griswold, sold briskly in hardcover and is just now appearing in paperback.
The title summarizes the book’s flawed thesis: The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam.
Over several years, Griswold (selectively) visited several African and Asian nations along the 10 degrees north latitude, a line where, she says, “two worlds collide,” marked by “two rival worldviews.” She writes sweepingly, ‘For more than two thousand years, the tenth parallel has served as such a dividing line; in its history begins the contemporary contest between Islam and the West.”
This framing of Islam as the Dangerous Other is an old and menacing theme in the West, dating to the Crusades, the Catholic Reconquista in 15th century Spain, or the Turkish army laying siege to Vienna in 1683. Samuel P. Huntington, in his notorious The Clash of Civilizations, insisted that “Islam has bloody borders.”
Disproving Griswold’s thesis is not difficult, even by using some of her own evidence. She does examine Muslim/Christian religious clashes in the middle belt of Nigeria, but she ignores ferocious, violent tribalism elsewhere in the country, between southern ethnic groups that are all “Christian.” She moves east to Sudan, and reports on the (recently ended) chronic war between the “Muslim north” and the “Christian and animist south,” but only in passing does she note that in the vicious fighting in Darfur, both sides are Muslim.
She leaves out most of the worst violence in Africa in recent decades: the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and the Great War in central Africa that started with Rwanda’s 1996 invasion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Christian/Muslim divide had nothing to do with either case of mass murder, (although the genocide museum in Kigali, Rwanda, points out that members of the small Rwandan Muslim community there risked their lives to protect Christians).
She also omits nations along the 10th parallel that do not fit her thesis. If she had visited Benin, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Guinea, or Mali, she would have found countries basically at peace, certainly divided by ethnic, and regional differences, but places where religion is not the most important distinction. In Mali, in particular, she would have encountered not a front-line Muslim caliphate on the march south, but a civilized, tolerant, plural society that despite being one of the poorest in the whole world has something to teach other, richer nations.
Her thesis is even weaker in Asia. She travels through Indonesia, investigating some Muslim/Christian clashes, but downplays the worst recent fighting there – the (Muslim) central government’s ferocious effort to suppress a rebellion in the (even more devoutly Muslim) region of Aceh. And her reporting is outdated; you would think Indonesia was still torn by conflict, instead of mainly at peace.
Griswold’s first-hand reporting is actually better than her wrongheaded thesis. She does show considerable courage in visiting some definitely dangerous places. She does explain that climate change has contributed to the tension in central Nigeria; Muslim herders are forced south by drought, where they clash with Christian settled farmers. So Nigerians are not really killing each other over Bible passages and verses of the Quran. And she does include portraits of brave people from both religions who risk their lives as peacemakers.
But, in the end, her divisive thesis looms over the book, casting an old, all-too-familiar Orientalist shadow.