In the winter of 2003, writer Eliza Griswold traveled to the northern capital of Sudan with Franklin Graham, the evangelical leader and son of Billy Graham, to meet with Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan.
There were several reasons for making the trip. Graham wanted to ask Bashir for the right to preach to Muslims in Khartoum and in northern Sudan. (Bashir denied his request.) Griswold, meanwhile, wanted to see how Christian evangelicals had come to play such a large role in U.S. foreign policy, a topic she was researching for her book The Tenth Parallel, about the collisions between Islam and Christianity in certain parts of the world.
She says that when someone like Graham travels to Sudan to meet with an official, he is seen as representative of what all Americans believe.
"That is one of the more dangerous realities of how conservative evangelicals abroad can shape the perception of the West," she says. "This is especially sensitive in the Muslim world. ... [And then we see] this kind of defensive posturing of Islam — that Islam is under threat by the West. Unfortunately, a handful of evangelicals can misrepresent what the West is about and make Muslims feel very much under threat."
Ideological conflicts like these are not limited to Sudan, but many of them take place along the 10th parallel, the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator. More than 60 percent of the world's 2 billion Christians live along the 10th parallel — along with half the world's 1.3 billion Muslim population. Griswold spent the past seven years traveling along the latitude line and researching the places — like Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines — where Christianity and Islam collide.
She recounts her journey and shares several stories about her time speaking to religious leaders in Africa and Asia with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. She also explains how her travels along the 10th parallel have helped her see how Islamic leaders may view the controversy in New York City over plans for an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero.
"I think it's sending a message that the West is at war with Islam," she says. "I know that's not what most people engaged in that fight would see as the case, but unfortunately, there are plenty of people out there — al-Qaida included — who are willing to work as spin doctors, who are willing to get that message — that Islam is a danger at the hands of the West — across.' "
Eliza Griswold is the author of The Tenth Parallel and Wideawake Field, a collection of poems. She is currently a fellow at the New America Foundation and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.
On the meeting between Omar al-Bashir and Franklin Graham
"What President Bashir did was try to convince Graham to convert to Islam. The two men engaged in this faith-based one-upmanship where each tried to convert the other to his respective faith. ... [Then] Franklin remembered that in his pocket he had a 2004 election pin for the re-election of George W. Bush. So he reached into his pocket and he wanted to give it to Bashir and he said, 'Mr. President, you'll be speaking to my president later on today and I think you should tell him you're his first voter here in the Sudan.' In one way, to read what that situation really meant, was Graham showing Bashir that he had the ear of the administration — that here's where faith and foreign policy were really intermingled. Graham was not an emissary of the U.S. government in any way, yet the pin, which he'd taken from the desk of Karl Rove's secretary, indicated that he had access to the uppermost echelons of power — and that's what he was trying to tell Bashir. Bashir only met with Graham because he feared his country would be the next country, after Iraq and Afghanistan, to face U.S. invasion."
On Peter Akinola, the former Anglican Primate of the Church of Nigeria, seeing religion as a numbers game
"That notion that democracy — that Islam will use democracy against the West because democracy, like religion, is a numbers game, and it matters how many believers you have, whether those believers are Christian or Muslim or Democrats or Republicans — I have heard that as much in Franklin, Tenn., as I have in Abuja, Nigeria. That is pretty prominent thinking — [things like] 'these guys are going to take over, and you liberal apologists are going to pay for your blindness at the ballot box.' "