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The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islamby Eliza Griswold
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
—THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE 23:341
“Lord, forgive thy people, they do not know.”
—SAHIH AL-BUKHARI, ISTITABE, 5
THE ROCK: ONE
Wase Rock is a double-humped crag that towers eight hundred feet above the green hills of Nigerias Middle Belt. Wase (“wah-say”) means “all-embracing” in Arabic, and it is one of Islams ninety-nine names for God. Majestic and odd, the freestanding stone is smack in the center of the country, which, with 140 million people, is Africas most populous. It is the largest in the world to be almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims. There are forty-five to fifty million members of each respective faith, but no exact figures, since the Nigerian government deemed questions about religion too dangerous to ask during the most recent census in 2006.1 As in Sudan, fifteen hundred miles to the east, Nigerias Muslims live predominantly in the desert north, and its Christians, to the swampy south. (There are some important exceptions, including the southwest, where the ethnic Yoruba have adopted both religions.) For the most part, Christianity and Islam meet in the Middle Belt, a two-hundred-mile-wide strip of fertile grassland that lies between the seventh and tenth parallels (from five hundred to seven hundred miles north of the equator) and runs from west to east across most of inland Africa.
This pale grassland belongs to the Sahel, which means “coast” in Arabic. The Sahel forms the coast of a great sand sea: the norths immense Sahara Desert. And the Middle Belt sits on a two-thousand-foot-high plateau of russet tableland; as the ground rises, the air freshens and cools. Depending on the season, the terrain ranges from bone-dry steppe to luxuriant green bush. On most days, a mild breeze blows down from the Middle Belts knobby escarpments, over the savannas glossy burr grass, and across a patchwork of small cassava and dairy farms, which produce milk that is an ambrosia of butter, honey, and sun.
The Middle Belt could be an earthly paradise, but it is not. I first arrived there in August 2006, to visit a local Muslim king called the Emir of Wase. As I approached Wase, the plateau became blistered with ruins. Almost every village had been burned to the ground, both the round thatched huts of the Christian farmers and the square mud houses that belonged to Muslim traders and herders. Since 2001, Nigerias Middle Belt has been torn apart by violence between Christians and Muslims; tens of thousands of people have been killed in religious skirmishes. Almost all of these began over something other than religion—from local elections to fights over land, to mob violence that broke out between Muslims and Christians in reaction to Americas invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. Yet these small street fights, infused with deeper hatred, have often given way to massacres in churches, hospitals, and mosques. With each side determined to eradicate the other, the skirmishes have assumed the rhetoric of faith-based genocide; one Christian writer called Nigerias Muslims “cockroaches,” a deliberate reminder of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Blessed with some of the worlds richest oil reserves, Nigeria is sub-Saharan Africas major petroleum producer. It is Americas fifth-largest supplier of oil, a factor in the pronouncement by the U.S. assistant secretary of state Johnnie Carson that Nigeria is “undoubtedly the most important country in Sub-Saharan Africa.”2 But if Nigeria is one of the continents wealthiest and most influential powers, it is also one of its most corrupt democracies. Since the end of military rule in 1999, politicians have reportedly embezzled between $4 billion and $8 billion annually.3
Despite the countrys vast oil wealth, more than half of Nigerians live on less than one dollar a day, and four out of ten are unemployed. Being a citizen in Nigeria means next to nothing; in many regions, the state offers no electricity, water, or education. Instead, for access to every thing from schooling to power lines, many Nigerians turn to religion. Being a Christian or a Muslim, belonging to the local church or mosque, and voting along religious lines has become the way to safeguard seemingly secular rights.
Nigerias population is also growing at a rate of 2 percent a year—dramatically faster than the global average. This growth is particularly remarkable for Christians; high birth rates and aggressive evangelization over the past century have increased the number of believers from 176,000 to nearly 50 million. When it comes to religious competition, population is an undeniable asset. Due to these staggering numbers of new believers, many African Christians argue that, as the Middle Belt Anglican archbishop Benjamin Kwashi told me, “God has moved his work to Africa.”
To visit the emir, I had borrowed a gold minivan that belonged to a one-armed pastor and an imam, former sworn enemies who had started an interfaith organization in the nearby city of Kaduna. Decals on the rear window read, “PEACE IS DIVINE.” The minivans driver was bald, barrel-chested, and in his mid-forties; Haruna Yakubu had formerly led Muslim gangs in Middle Belt clashes. Now he was seeking to deprogram the young men he had taught to fight in defense of their religion.
Wase lay on the far side of a river of the same name, and the only way to reach the tiny Muslim kingdom was to cross a narrow, one-lane concrete bridge. As we drove along the devastated floodplain toward Wase, some of the Christian farmers were beginning to rebuild. Tethered awkwardly outside the Christians huts were muddy white cattle. Before the fighting, the farmers had hardly any cows; they belonged to the Muslim herders. The cattle were war booty.
When we reached the bridge, an orange truck was jackknifed across the lane, listing over the edge. A man in a Mylar suit and a matching peaked hat—like the tin man from The Wizard of Oz— pantomimed a traffic cop, but he was only playing at order. Cars were backed up behind the accident for several miles. The trucks heavy cab dangled off to the right and over the cataract rushing below, like a huge steel creature lowering its exhausted head for a drink. A market had sprung up: among the jam of people and cars, women sold peanuts and blackened corn from tin trays on their heads, the commerce of daily catastrophe. Radio chatter drifted from the open doors of trucks and cars. Nobody knew how long the wait would be—a week, maybe more. It would take a special winch to lift the truck, and it was days away. Until the winch arrived, all travel—to work, to the hospital, to buy clean water from the nearby town (Wase had none)—stopped dead. But the emir was not a man to be kept waiting, so we had to find a way across the bridge. Savvy Yakubu, the minivans driver, quietly gathered a group of teenage boys hanging around—more than half of Nigerias population is under eighteen—as I heaved open the vans sliding door and got out to walk. Somehow, the boys managed to lift our gold Toyota van, inch it around the jackknifed truck, and place it safely back onto the rickety bridge.
The emirs earthen castle stood atop a hill about five miles from Wase Rock. The clay forecourt swarmed with courtiers in billowing robes, and the clatter of hooves rang from the royal stable. On days like this one, when the emir was granting an audience, supplicants came from hundreds of miles away to ask his help with school fees or in solving disputes with neighbors. They waited in an octagonal two-story chamber, where a dozen members of the palace guard read the newspaper on the chilly floor. The kings advisor, or waziri, with a pink lace turban set on his head like a bicycle helmet, waited for the emir to summon his visitors, as his grandfather and great-grandfather had done before him. Most royal posts the rock: one are hereditary, and the emirs bloodline has been a source of loyalty and honor since 1816, when his ancestor founded the kingdom at the base of Wase Rock.
This ancestor, a mysterious figure named Hasan, was a follower, a jihadi, of Nigerias most famous Islamic reformer and a hero among African Muslims to this day: Uthman dan Fodio, a religious teacher and ethnic Fulani herder who launched a West African jihad in 1802 to purify Islam and promote the education of women. Dan Fodio, like most North African Muslims, was a Sufi. His was the first in a series of holy wars to rage across the center of the continent during the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. Most of these jihads began as religious rebellions within Islam, uprisings against African kings who the Sufi reformers believed had corrupted the faith. Yet time and again, as Europes Christian colonial powers arrived in Africa, these holy wars morphed into battles against the infidel West. These jihads, while largely forgotten, represent some of the earliest and bloodiest confrontations of Islam with the West; they drove colonial policy toward Muslims not only in Africa but worldwide. They also laid the groundwork for Islams opposition to the modern West.
By 1810, seventy-five years before the British would claim Nigeria as their protectorate, Dan Fodios followers, called his flag bearers, had conquered a large swath of West Africa as their own Islamic empire. The vanquished generally welcomed the flag bearers, who came riding south over the Sahels high, pleasant plateau, on horses and camels and with Dan Fodios pennant fluttering before them. When they neared the tenth parallel, the desert air moistened and the ground grew wetter. Here, the notorious tsetse fly belt began, and sleeping sickness killed off the jihadis horses and camels, effectively halting their religions southward advance. One of these jihadis, the emirs ancestor, established his kingdom on his favorite grazing land in the shadow of Wase Rock. For thirteen generations, the emirs family has occupied this leaking keep. A place out of time, it feels more like an ancient oasis in Arabia than a palace in modern-day Nigeria; the only objects in the anteroom to signal the passage of two hundred years are the newspapers and a white plastic wall phone that buzzes when the emir is ready to hear petitions.
In his traditional dress of pistachio robes and a gauze turban that tucks under his nose and culminates in two wilting rabbit ears, the Emir of Wase is the only man allowed to wear shoes—gold-buckled loafers—in his castle. According to custom, his courtiers must sit barefoot on the floor below him. When I first met His Royal Highness Haruna Abdullahi, in 2006, however, he insisted I remain on his level, and sent his chief advisor to fetch my sneakers so we could speak as equals. Fine-boned and elegant, with dark skin and sharp features, the emir, like his ancestors, is an ethnic Fulani, and most of his people are still herders. An erudite man, he seemed bored in his clammy throne room and eager to set aside the usual supplications in order to discuss how his territory had been caught up in a religious conflagration.
For all his ancient trappings, the emir is a modern intellectual and a liberal religious scholar who traveled to Pennsylvania during the 1960s to study at the University of Pittsburgh, earning a doctoral degree in public administration. “I didnt tell anyone I was a prince in Pittsburgh,” he said, laughing deeply. He sent a minion to a stack of old papers in the corner of the cold room to root out a copy of his dissertation, the title of which he could not remember and which the courtier never found. Instead, the courtier returned with a slim yellow booklet. Dropping his head, he fell to his knees and offered it to the emir. Together with a local Catholic bishop, the emir had compiled this collection of verses from the Christian Bible and the Quran to try to correct religious misunderstanding.
“These verses command believers to live together peacefully,” he said, holding up the small pamphlet and setting it beside him on the antique couch that served as his throne. More than a decade earlier, when his father died at the age of 102, Abdullah had been working as a bank manager in the capital of Abuja. When he ascended the throne in 2001, the crisis had just begun, and from mosque loudspeakers and church pulpits, religious leaders on both sides were using the holy books to call for blood.
The emir, by his own count, had cared for between 350,000 and 400,000 Muslims, many of whom showed up at the palace gates and demanded his protection during the conflict. “I cant tell you how much money I spent on feeding all those people,” he said. “Everyone who enters my domain, I have to account for before the Creator.” For example, the jackknifed truck on the bridge—“If anyone falls off that bridge today, its my responsibility,” he said. This was his duty as a king, and what his Muslim name, Abdullahi—abd, “servant” or “slave,” of Allah—commanded.
“Anytime people come to the palace, I have to open the door. I have no choice,” he said. His voice was slightly muffled by gauze. Being a king was exhausting and expensive, and he could not afford to fix his own dripping roof. At the moment, there was a lull in the violence. On both sides, people had lost too much—land, livestock, and loved ones—to keep pummeling one another. No one could afford to keep fighting. This peace had been mandated by money, not mutual religious understanding, and the emir feared it would not last.
He picked up the yellow booklet beside him. In it, he had highlighted (in his native language of Hausa) the Qurans universal messages of coexistence for all of humankind, many of which were revealed to Mohammed early on in his life as Gods messenger, when he was forty-something and a wealthy trader living in his Arabian hometown of Mecca.
“Religion is personal; it is in the mind,” the emir said, smiling. “The books arent written in straight language—you need not only to read but to understand.” Tapping his college ring against the couchs edge, he relished these kinds of riddles, and seemed more at ease talking about the nature of power and the lessons that God had revealed to the Prophet Mohammed than discussing upcoming elections or the price of rice or the availability of drinking water.
“We know Jesus taught that if someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to the left,” he said ruefully. “We know that Mohammed was sacked from his village and stoned at Taif, but he quietly left for Medina.” In 619, according to the Hadith, the reports of what the Prophet said and did during his lifetime,4 Mohammed traveled to Taif, a mountainside town in Arabia about seventy miles southeast of the holy city of Mecca, to invite its people to become Muslims. Instead of welcoming him, the farmers stoned him and drove him, bleeding, out of town. Afterward, the archangel Gabriel—“Gibriel” in Arabic—came to the Prophet and asked him if he wanted revenge against Taif. Wiping blood from his face, the Prophet refused, saying, “Lord, forgive thy people, they do not know.”5 Mohammed knew about Jesus and his teachings; before his death, he instructed his followers to act as Jesus had, to be willing to die for their faith. Mohammeds words echo Jesuss plea from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
The emir made the point that if both of these men, beaten and bloodied—the incarnations of their respective faiths—asked God to forgive their aggressors, then who were todays religious leaders to advocate holy war? The two religions were deeply linked, the emir said, but leaders did not know of, or else had forgotten, their common bonds. The Quran also tells the story of the Virgin Mary giving birth alone beneath a date tree. When she returns in shame to her familys house, the newborn Jesus speaks: “God is my Lord and your Lord; so serve Him: that is a straight path” (19:36).6
Yet which was the right path: Christianity or Islam? Despite the emirs best intentions, this conflict over whose beliefs were sanctioned by God caught fire as soon as local Muslims and Christians began to see each other as objects of competition and obstacles to survival. And that came down to the economy. “People have no way to get jobs,” the emir said. “Children are being taught not to go back to farms; theyre not taught to survive practically, but to get white-collar jobs that dont exist.” There are more than sixty million jobless Nigerian youth—including many of the boys who carried the minivan over the bridge—a ready army free to man the front lines in any religious conflict. Before elections, or at any opportune moment, the same corrupt politicians embezzling millions of dollars pay these youths to act as righteous and intimidating thugs. The first places destroyed in these battles are places of worship, then banks and cars—the symbols of worldly power to which these young people have no access.
“An educated idle mind can be dangerous,” as the emir put it. This maxim could easily refer to the emir himself—trapped in his crumbling castle, his management degree rendered useless by a conflict for which he was not prepared. His grasp on power, however, was more complicated than it looked, and it was tied to the British colonial legacy. Following the Berlin Conference of 1885—known as the Scramble for Africa, when Europes colonial powers met to divvy up the continent—much of the vast tract of “the Soudan,” including the territories of contemporary Nigeria and Sudan, fell to the British. In these territories, Muslim North Africa met the “pagan” black African south. (On medieval Arab maps, this was the beginning of the “Land of the Blacks”—Bilad-as-Sudan— from which Sudan takes its name.) In Nigerias Muslim north, the British faced some resistance from Dan Fodios former jihadis, whom they managed to subdue by the early twentieth century. In Nigeria, the British were able to use the system of indirect rule that had proven so successful in India, and that meant bolstering the power of leaders such as Wases emir.
Excerpted from The Tenth Parallel by Eliza Griswold.
Copyright © 2010 by Eliza Griswold.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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