In the book which has by now become an important point of reference, The Clash of Civilizations (1996), the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington developed the thesis that after the demise of the Cold War conflicts would be between civilizations rather than ideologies. The thesis has been hotly discussed ever since, mostly unfavorably. I continue to have great respect for Huntington’s contributions to our understanding of the contemporary world, and indeed I co-chaired with him a project on globalization and culture. But his thesis on civilizational conflicts never persuaded me. If the thesis has plausibility at all, it is with reference to the Muslim world. In an article in Foreign Affairs (1993), in which Huntington adumbrated the thesis of the book, he wrote the much quoted sentence “Islam has bloody borders.” While this sentence too does not describe Islam at all times and in all places, it does fit many situations in which Islam confronts other religious communities.
The sentence could serve as a succinct summary of a recent book by Eliza Griswold, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (2010). Griswold, an inveterate journalist and a lively writer, traveled through some of the very bloody borders between the two faiths in Africa and Asia. On reading her book, I had to admire her courage. I also had to think of another book, this one by P.J. O’Rourke some years ago, entitled Holidays in Hell. (I can only hope that, in between her forays into some of the planet’s choicest hellholes, Griswold finds time for holidays in more pleasant places.)
The title of the book is catchy though not quite accurate. It suggests that the tenth parallel north of the equator is the main battle line between Christianity and Islam. This works well in Africa, along a line that stretches right across the continent – Christians to the south of it, Muslims to the north. It works less well in Asia, except perhaps in the Philippines, specifically in Mindanao, except that here the Christians are in the north and the Muslims in the south. But that is a minor matter. Griswold describes very well indeed how the two faiths collide, often with ferocious violence, in three countries in Africa—Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia—and three in Asia—Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines. In each case she goes into the historical background in some detail. She writes with empathy, though without taking sides. This is journalism at its best. (She only mentions in passing her having grown up as the daughter of an Episcopal bishop. I don’t think the book would have been any different if her childhood had been in a different religious environment.)
Griswold provides strong support to Huntington’s statement that Islam has bloody borders. She could have added other cases of Christian-Muslim violence—in the Balkans, the Caucasus and (though less along sharp geographical lines) in the Middle East. There is also the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, originally between two peoples and more recently “religionized” as pitting Judaism against Islam. This is not to say that Muslims have always been the instigators—Christian Serbia started the wars in the former Yugoslavia (and these also pitted Orthodox against Catholic Christians). Arguably the most dangerous conflict in the world, between India and Pakistan, pits Hindus against Muslims. The savage civil war in Sri Lanka was between the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamils. Generally speaking, conflicts become more violent if they are legitimated in religious terms. No religious tradition, even the most pacific one (think Buddhism), is immune against serving this kind of legitimation. All the same, superimposing a religious world map over a similar map delineating violent conflicts, the borders of Islam stand out. And mostly Muslims are the initiators of the violence (though Christians may have tried hard to provoke them).
This is not to deny that most Muslims in the contemporary world desire to live in peace with their neighbors of other faith, nor to deny that there have been Muslim states that presided over such peaceful relations for long periods of time (for example, intermittently under the caliphate of Cordoba in Spain, in Moghul India and in the Ottoman empire). Nevertheless, there is a problem that goes back to the very beginnings of Muslim history: From the time that the first Muslims established themselves as the rulers of Medina, Islam was a political and increasingly a legal system as well as a faith. In Medina Muhammad continued to be a prophet, but he also became the head of a state and a military leader. With the exception of Southeast Asia (where Islam was spread by traders from the the subcontinent), what we now know as the Muslim world was established by conquest. It is no accident that in traditional Muslim thought the world is divided into two spheres—the realm of Islam (dar ul-Islam) and the realm of war (dar ul-harb). Put simply, it is assumed that the border between Islamic rule and the rest of the world marks a state of war, even if periods of armistice are possible. One should be cognizant of the important fact that there are Muslim thinkers today who are reformulating the nature of Islamic law (sharia) and of Islamic war (jihad) in a much more liberal manner. But one must also recognize that there is a weighty tradition to the contrary and that a large number of Muslims, possibly the majority, does not favor these reformulations.
One of the more amazing accounts in Griswold’s book deals with a visit to Khartoum, in 2003, by Franklin Graham, son and heir of the famous evangelist Billy Graham. She went along as a journalist. Oddly enough, Graham had been invited by the Sudanese dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was probably motivated by the desire to improve his image in the United States and to have the sanctions revoked that had been imposed on Sudan for its past association with Osama bin Laden. The conversation between the two men was surreal. Al-Bashir welcomed Graham, saying, “Many people didn’t understand us as we really are, but now, thank God, we want peace.” After Graham said that he wanted to be free to travel around Sudan and to evangelize, al-Bashir chuckled and said, “I want freedom of religion because I would like to convert you.” Graham introduced his entourage, including a doctor who had worked in the hospital that Graham had established in the secessionist south of the country. “Isn’t that the hospital we bombed?”, asked al-Bashir. Graham replied, “Twice. And you missed.” Before one is charmed by this bantering conversation, it is useful to recall that al-Bashir, a fanatical Islamist, has been conducting two genocidal wars, one in southern Sudan (Muslims against Christians), the other in Darfur (Arab Muslims against black Muslims).
Surreal in a different way is the account of a visit by Graham to a children’s hospital in Khartoum. He had for a long time helped with medical facilities in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa, always combining this effort with evangelism. The visit to the hospital in Khartoun was part of the operation Christmas Child. Each child received a box with toilet articles, socks, toys, sometimes with Bibles or Christian tracts. There were also individual letters from American children. One read by Griswold read, “You can think of the gifts as a blessing from Jesus Christ. Do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” One may assume that the children did not fully understand these messages. One may also assume that the hospital staff was outraged.
Griswold describes scenes such as these in terms of “two opposing fundamentalisms.” Both are repulsive. But one should not regard them as morally equivalent. Using toys to seduce hospitalized children into conversion, however distasteful, is surely less reprehensible than killing children in an air attack on a hospital. Muslims commonly regard any attempt to evangelize as aggression. There has indeed been an aggressive attempt to convert Muslims to Christianity in many countries, today much less so than in the past (though Evangelicals like Franklin Graham unabashedly continue this effort). At the famous missionary conference in Edinburgh in 1910 John Mott, the founder of the YMCA (“muscular Christianity” in more ways than one) and a leading figure of the conference, stated: “Two forces are contending for Africa—Christianity and Mohammedanism [Islam]. In many respects the more aggressive is Mohammedanism… If things continue as they are now tending, Africa may become a Mohammedan continent… It [Islam] is Christianity’s most formidable enemy.” The mission envisaged by Mott as the answer to this enemy was certainly aggressive. But it did not advocate violence.
Despite her accounts of sometimes grisly violence between Muslims and Christian, Griswold ends on an optimistic note. She points to the ability of many people with different faiths, including Christianity and Islam, to live together peacefully. It becomes clear from her accounts that such peaceful co-existence can be quickly disrupted if politicians and other leaders find it in their interest to stir up intercommunal hostility. Every peaceful situation is potentially fragile.
This is a book well worth reading and pondering. I will venture some statements that Griswold may not necessarily agree with.
- Both Christians and Muslims may instigate violence—for example, Orthodox Christians in Bosnia and Kosovo, Muslims in Nigeria.
- Both traditions have the potential of legitimating violence. Both traditions can be interpreted as opposing such legitimation. Because of history and contemporary dynamics, Muslims have a more difficult time repudiating violence and coercion—the repudiation is all the more important.
- Evangelical missionary activity among Muslims is a form of Christian aggression. It is often repulsive to others (and not only to targeted Muslims). But it is uniformly non-violent. There are no Evangelical suicide bombers. There is no project to set up an Evangelical theocracy.
- Given that, as Griswold correctly points out, most people want to live their lives in peace, the question arises as to how agitators can succeed, sometimes in a very short time, in stirring up extreme violence. I think that this is asking the wrong question. Violence comes naturally to the variant of gorillas to which (ironically named) homo sapiens belongs. If you don’t like this quasi-Darwinist language, let me put it in quasi-theological language. The British Catholic thinker Gilbert Keith Chesterton observed that the doctrine of original sin is the only one for which no faith is required—it can be empirically verified—by just looking around, or by reading a newspaper. The right question is how it is possible that, sometimes for long periods of time, human beings succeed without inflicting homicidal violence on each other. The answer then lies in cultivating institutions which repress our natural inclination toward violence—institutions of the state, of the rule of law and (last not least) the value-bearing institutions of civil society. Whatever benevolent despotisms may have served this purpose in the past, under modern conditions the institutions of liberal democracy are most likely to do so.