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The tenth parallel, the line of latitude seven hundred miles north of the equator, is the defining metaphor of our time. An ideological front line stretching across two continents and nineteen countries, this is where Christianity and Islam collide. The stories of The Tenth Parallel examine the complex relationships of religion, land, and oil, among other resources; local conflicts and global ideology; and politics and contemporary martyrdom, both Islamic and Christian. This visionary work of literary nonfiction will set the agenda for the way we think about religion and our shared future and how we divide our dwindling resources. The Tenth Parallel is a timely and essential examination of the relationship between faith and violence in the contemporary world.
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ELIZA GRISWOLD, a fellow at the New America Foundation, received a 2010 Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome. Her journalism has appeared in the Atlantic, New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, and Harper's Magazine, among others. A 2007 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, she was awarded the first Robert I. Friedman Award for investigative reporting. A collection of her poems, Wideawake Field, was published in 2007.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Tenth Parallel
PART ONEAFRICANIGERIA"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, 51THE ROCK: ONEWase Rock is a double-humped crag that towers eight hundred feet above the green hills of Nigeria's Middle Belt. Wase ("wah-say") means "all-embracing" in Arabic, and it is one of Islam's ninety-nine names for God. Majestic and odd, the freestanding stone is smack in the center of thecountry, which, with 140 million people, is Africa's 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, Nigeria's 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 north's 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 Belt's knobby escarpments, over the savanna's 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, Nigeria's 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 America's 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 calledNigeria's Muslims "cockroaches," a deliberate reminder of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Blessed with some of the world's richest oil reserves, Nigeria is sub-Saharan Africa's major petroleum producer. It is America's 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 continent's 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.3Despite the country's 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 everything 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.Nigeria's 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 would tell 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 minivan's 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 wayto 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 truck's 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 minivan's driver, quietly gathered a group of teenage boys hanging around--more than half of Nigeria's population is under eighteen--as I heaved open the van's 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 emir's 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 king's 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 postsare hereditary, and the emir's 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 Nigeria's 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 Europe's 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 Islam's opposition to the modern West.By 1810, seventy-five years before the British would claim Nigeria as their protectorate, Dan Fodio's 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 Sahel's high, pleasant plateau, on horses and camels and with Dan Fodio's 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 the...
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