The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information

 TeasersGene Expression Blog

Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New ReplyRead More
ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Thanks, LOL, or Troll with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used three times during any eight hour period.
Ignore Commenter Follow Commenter
🔊 Listen RSS

9780061472817 When it comes to scholarly explorations of religion and history it is very difficult to find works which I can recommend to casually interested friends. On the one hand you have very narrow monographs on a specific topic, for example the possible connection between Monothelitism and Maronite Christianity. Set next to these you have broadly written and engaging works of semi-scholarship with very strong viewpoints which operationally reinforce the preconceptions or biases of the audience. Karen Armstrong’s body of work is an exemplar of this. Much of it is filled with fascinating detail, but she invariably shades the framing of the past so as to make it congenial to her religiously liberal Western audience. Armstrong’s opposite in viewpoint would be Rodney Stark. A sociologist by training Starks’ early work on religion always came with a large dollop of opinion, but it was sound in terms of scholarship. But of late he’s moved in a far more polemical direction, exemplified by books such as God’s Battalians: The Case for the Crusades. Starks’ recent work can be compared to the more crass Afrocentric projects, they’re long drawn out arguments which show that the greatest of human achievements necessarily come from the tradition which conservative Western Christians are singular modern representatives of (not just Western, Stark attempts to dismiss the intellectual achievements of Classical Greeks in The Victory of Reason; rather atrociously in my opinion).

A strong viewpoint is not always a problem. The ideal of objectivity is often an illusion, and only produces a muddle. But in the case of both Stark and Armstrong’s work if you are moderately familiar with their area of focus you can pick out many errors of omission and interpretation. Naturally these flaws in their reading of the literature are always in the direction of their conclusion of preference. If you have a thick network of background facts and frames into which you can inject data and analysis, bias need not be a problem. I am an atheist but I have no issue reading the New Testament for its historical and literary value, despite the fact that it has a clear viewpoint. But that viewpoint is very transparent and obvious to someone who does not share it. Much of popular historical writing has the problem that the audience is not aware of the bias and selectivity of the authors as they frame their arguments. Rodney Stark and Karen Armstrong have a much more fluent grasp of medieval history than the vast majority of their readers, so their obfuscations and distortions, conscious or not, will not be transparent to the audience. It is with all this said that I wholeheartedly recommend Philip Jenkins oeuvre to anyone who will listen. Jenkins’ own perspective colors his scholarship, but he is frank and honest with the reader as to his sympathies, while at the same time correcting the enthusiasms of his “own side.” This is far preferable to the illusion of the “view of from nowhere.” Because his cards are on the table the lay audience can weight his assertions appropriately.

Jenkins is an Episcopalian who has an affinity for the more traditionalist streams of Christian faith and practice coming out of what is now termed the “Global South.” He is probably most well known for his lengthy exposition on this topic in his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, though I personally find that his book on Europe, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis, more original. In his popular works Philip Jenkins writes in a manner which makes it clear that he is broadly in agreement with the claims of the Christian religion. There is no doubt in that. But he is also a man who can say something like this:

“Much to my surprise, the Islamic scriptures in the Quran were actually far less bloody and less violent than those in the Bible,” Jenkins says.

Jenkins is a professor at Penn State University and author of two books dealing with the issue: the recently published Jesus Wars, and Dark Passages , which has not been published but is already drawing controversy.

Violence in the Quran, he and others say, is largely a defense against attack.

“By the standards of the time, which is the 7th century A.D., the laws of war that are laid down by the Quran are actually reasonably humane,” he says. “Then we turn to the Bible, and we actually find something that is for many people a real surprise. There is a specific kind of warfare laid down in the Bible which we can only call genocide.”

It is called herem, and it means total annihilation. Consider the Book of 1 Samuel, when God instructs King Saul to attack the Amalekites: “And utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them,” God says through the prophet Samuel. “But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

“By the standards of the time” is critical. Much of the genocidal coloring of the Bible comes from the passages in the Hebrew Bible, a product of the late Bronze Age. In contrast the Koran is a product of a world where “higher religions” with formally developed ethical theories were waxing. The rhetoric of genocide as grand strategy was replaced with the implementation of genocide as a tactic of necessity. Similarly, the Book of Mormon reflects an understanding of archaeology totally in keeping with early 19th century America.

Despite the fact that Philip Jenkins is a believing Christian who presumably accepts that the Christian religion is the true religion in some deep sense he does not tend to whitewash the history of Christianity or deny the virtues of other religions. This sort of epoché, stepping away from one’s own normative preferences to assess the world as it is and was, is admirable and all too rare. It is alas especially rare in scholarship which is aimed toward the public. This does not mean that everything Philip Jenkins asserts in his books should be taken as Truth, but, it does tell you that he is making a sincere attempt at getting at the heart of what was and is, not what he would prefer it to have been or be.

Jenkins’ most recent book, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died, is a perfect exemplar of his strengths. It has a definite perspective, Jenkins does not hide his plain admiration for the lost Christian civilizations of the Middle East, but his partisanship does not compromise his integrity as a scholar. I believe that Philip Jenkins’ identity as a Christian in the Anglican tradition may explain some of his sympathy toward the world of Middle Eastern Christendom. The ancient Christian traditions of the Middle East emphasize liturgy and continuity with the past, just as the Roman Catholic Church does, but traditionally rejected the supremacy of the Pope* (and before that the Emperor). Similarly, there is a strand in the Anglican Church which is also rooted in the historic traditions of the Christian religion going back to antiquity, and yet they too reject the claims of the Bishop of Rome to primacy. This is not purely a detached work of scholarship for Philip Jenkins, the narrative is delivered in a manner which makes clear his regret and sadness at the passing of the great Christian tradition of the East into marginality, and then oblivion.

The Lost History of Christianity is a peculiar book insofar as it has two halves, and one of those halves is not that lost at all. The “lost” component is the history of what we term today Oriental Orthodoxy and the Church of the East, known in the West as the Monophysite and Nestorian traditions. More concretely these were the churches with rejected the theological tutelage of the Byzantine Empire, and so are not part of the Western Christian tradition even broadly understood. The Monophysite faction was dominant in the non-Greek portions of the Byzantine Empire before the rise of Islam, and today is represented by Christian minorities in Syria and Egypt, as well as the Armenian and Ethiopian churches. The Nestorian faction was for all practical purposes the Christian church as it emerged and evolved within the lands of the Sassanian dynasty of Persia, the Persian church (even if the majority of adherents were not ethnic Persians, but Syriac speakers who were resident in Mesopotamia). The first half of The Lost History of Christianity is a panoramic survey of these Eastern Christianities in the period between their separation from Byzantine Christian Orthodoxy and their final marginalization after the conquest of the Middle East by the Mongols.

After the survey of the history of Christianities lost Jenkins jumps centuries into the future, and chronicles the unexpected death of the churches of the East. These are the years not so lost. The centuries between Mongols and the late Ottoman period are passed over, in large part because these were generations when the eastern sects kept a low profile and focused on survival. And survive they did, as Jenkins observes the reality that there were large and vibrant Christian communities from Egypt to Iraq in 1900, before the unforeseen catastrophes of the 20th century rendered many of them irrelevant or moribund.

800px-Abbasids850Anyone who reads historical monographs would be well aware of the vital role that the Eastern traditions played in the spiritual life of the early Byzantine and Islamic polities. But as a rule this is not highlighted, or well understood, in histories written from a Western perspective. One aspect of The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization which I did not emphasize in my review is that the author seems to have a very weak grasp on the specific nature of religious pluralism in the early centuries of Islam. Part of the reason was that his real focus was on the late High Medieval and early early Renaissance era, but part of it was either ignorance or lack of interest in Eastern Christianity. This was evident to me in the fact that he repeatedly confused Monophysites for Nestorians, and didn’t seem to have a good grasp of the dynamics of the various players in the religious “great game” of that era. There is a natural reason for this: Eastern Christianity was a cultural dead-end. Jenkins notes correctly that as Eastern Christianity shifted from being majority to minority status in the lands of Islam it went from being intellectually productive to totally moribund in the domain of the mind. In the early years of Western Christianity around 700 there were a series of Syrian popes. When Western Christians began to penetrate the Ottoman heartland in the 19th century they found that the Syriac clerisy was often illiterate and had become hereditary (going from uncle to nephew, as the elite clergy were still often expected to celibate). They had become historical footnotes.

So why should we care? First, because the Eastern Christian tradition, and its rise and fall, give us a window into the waxing and waning of cultures and civilizations. Even granting the classical Islamic narrative whereby the religion exploded out of Arabia fully formed in the early to mid 7th century, Eastern Christians did not view the new dispensation as one which would in the end marginalize them. After all, they had experienced centuries of domination by an Imperial Roman (Byzantine) Christian Church which viewed them as heretics, but had persisted and flourished (perhaps only in Palestine was the Byzantine Orthodox Church the numerically preponderant in the non-Greek lands of the East). More recently in the decades before Islam much of the traditionally Byzantine Near East had been under Persian rule.

Christianity remained the dominant religion of most of the lands under Muslim rule for at least two centuries after the Arab conquests at a minimum. The Patriarch of the Church of the East between 780 and 823, Timothy, presided over a Christian international network which stretched from the Euphrates to China! Timothy’s missionaries were active in Central Asia, China, Tibet, and India. Mesopotamia was the heartland of his church, but most of the former Persian lands hard large Nestorian minorities, who remained in place while the Zoroastrians slowly disappeared. Jenkins makes the case that Timothy’s Church of the East was the largest of his day, superior in numbers to the Western Church headed by the Bishop of Rome. Remember than in 800 much of Germany was only marginally Christianized, while Scandinavia and almost all of Eastern Europe remained fully pagan. In the days of Charlemagne the Western Christian Church had barely expanded beyond the former Roman Empire, having added Ireland and the regions of Germany closer to the old imperial limes (Charlemagne famously forcibly converted the continental Saxons to Christianity, at least nominally). In contrast the Church of the East had connections and tendrils far outside of the boundaries of the Abbasid Caliphate in which the Timothy was a major political player.

Moving forward centuries the Mongols who conquered the Middle East in the 13th century had some Nestorian connections, due to the successful conversion of several tribes beyond the lands of Islam. The leader of the Mongol horde which sacked Baghdad, Hulagu, had a mother of the Nestorian faith. After centuries of decline since their preeminence in the early Abbasid period the Church of the East took heart in the rise of the Mongols, and the collapse of Islamic hegemony. The Christian connections, and even Christian affiliation, of the Mongol ruling elite opened up a possibility that after over five hundred years of Isle famic domination Christianity would come back to the fore as a religion of rulers in the former Persian lands. This was not to be, after a few decades of flirtation with Christianity and Buddhism, the Mongols of Mesopotamia and Iran opted for Islam. The window of tolerance was over, and the newly empowered Muslims put Christians back into the subordinate place that they’d had before the fall of the Abbasids. In fact they ground them down further in retribution for the perceived and real assistance that they’d provided the Mongols during their years when there had been a possibility for a new religious order. A simple lesson here is that pride cometh before the fall. In the first few Islamic centuries the center of the Christian world was arguably in the lands of Islam. These Christians had extended their reach beyond the domains of their Muslim overlords through a vigorous and conscious campaign of proselytization. For centuries their numerical heft within the Arab polity meant that the Muslim Caliphs would have to treat their religious officials with respect and due deference.

Plato-raphaelThis world of Christianities in 800 was no more in 1800. By then the faith was Europe, and Europe was the faith. Most of the Christianities had been lost, leaving Europe standing nearly alone, the Western Church sundered between the Catholics and Protestants, and the Eastern Roman Church having given rise to the Orthodox Christian churches of Eastern Europe. But it is here that Philip Jenkins brings us back to The Next Christendom: today Europe is no longer the faith, and the faith is no longer Europe. Western Christians are wont to assert that their religion is a compound, a Hebrew heart (revelation), Greek mind (theology), and Roman body (the institution of the Church). But Jenkins observes in The Lost History of Christianity that for much of the history of the religion the traditions of Oriental Orthodoxy and the Church of the East were more parsimonious in their application of Greek philosophical style and substance**, while Oriental Orthodoxy emerged in large part as an institutional counterpoint to the Roman state religion, and the Church of the East grew organically from the seedbed of the Persian Empire. The history of Eastern Christianity before its decline may offer us a window into the possibilities of the Christianity dominated by non-Europeans, at least numerically. As a non-Christian I do not take a deep interest in such topics, but I do know that Asian and African Christians in particular bring a new perspective as to the understanding of the necessary cultural preconditions of their religion. The Latin Church Father Tertullian once quipped, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” This may become more relevant in the near future, as non-European Christians challenge the cultural assumptions of a religion which has for 1,000 years been dominated by Europeans and people of European descent.

418px-Kim_Kardashian_6The second half of in The Lost History of Christianity deals with the death of the the Eastern churches in the last century. This is as Jenkins admits something of an exaggeration. Nearly 1 out of 10 Egyptians remains a Copt, an adherent of Egypt’s Monophysite Christian tradition. The Ethiopian and Armenian Orthodox churches retain their central roles in the national identity of these peoples. Lebanon still has a robust Christian population, albeit one which is almost certainly a minority today. The true story of the death of Christianity in the East is in the former Persian lands, Iraq and Iran. In the early 20th century the Iraqi government engaged in a genocide to purge the nation of its Assyrian minority, those Christians who adhered to the tradition of the Church of the East of Timothy. Operationally they succeeded, as the Assyrian community is now almost wholly a Diaspora. This left the Chaldean Catholic Church, of which Tariq Aziz is a member, as the dominant Christian presence in Iraq. This Christian community comes out of the Church of the East, but aligned itself with the Roman Catholic Church during the Ottoman period. This seems a tendency within Eastern Christianity in its terminal phases: a susceptibility to being absorbed into the more robust Western Church. In any case, the American occupation of Iraq and the emergence of a democratic popular regime resulted in the decimation of the Chaldean Catholic community. Most now live in the West, Syria, or Jordan, fleeing Iraq because of their untenable position as a marginal player caught in the cross-fires of sectarian conflict.

401px-Shakira_Rio_02Philip Jenkins contends that in 1900 Christians formed at a minimum 10% of the population of the Fertile Crescent, while in much of eastern Anatolia Armenian Christians were a prominent presence. In 2000 the Armenians no longer were a presence in eastern Anatolia. Christians were ~5% of Jordan’s population (30% in 1950), and are nearly gone from Iraq and Palestine. They are now a minority in Lebanon, whereas they had once been a solid majority. Some of this can be attributed to differential birthrates, as Christians tend to be more educated and Westernized, and so have smaller families. But the preponderance of the proportionate decline is probably due to emigration. There may be as many 10 million people of Arab descent in Brazil, almost all of Syrian and Lebanese Christian origin. There are substantial populations of Christian Arab provenance across Latin America, in France, and the United States. A quick back-of-the-envelope indicates to me that more Christian Arabs live in the New World than in the Middle East by at least a factor of two, and probably more (there are some ambiguities with identifying Arabs in the New World in part because many of them, such as Salma Hayek and Shakira, are of only part-Arab descent). With 10% of the population remaining Christian, Syria is probably the exception which proves a rule: the rise of populist nationalism in the Arab world has not been good for the region’s ancient Christian communities. Syria is dominated by a family of Alawite origin. Jenkins introduces the possibility that the Alawites may be derived from the Gnostic Christian tradition, but all that really needs to be stated is that Alawite heterodoxy is such that the regime can not afford to tolerate exclusive Islamic chauvinism from its Sunni majority. In Dining with al-Qaeda the author observes that it is not uncommon in Syria that Christians have authority over Muslims in the bureaucracy, something which he asserts would be totally unheard of elsewhere in the Arab world excepting Lebanon, where they form a much larger and more powerful segment of the populace than in Syria. It is to Syria that Iraqi Christians tend to flee, and a large fraction of the world’s Chaldean Catholics now calls Damascus home.

The Lost History of Christianity shows that when history, power, and presence, are lost, one becomes invisible to the world. Though Western Christians were shocked and appalled at pogroms directed against their religious brethren in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, their interventions went only so far. The Ottomans did manage to extirpate the Armenian community from their lands. The Iraqi government did expel the Assyrians. More recently the Christians of Palestine and Israel have been caught between Jews and Muslims. Ironically Jenkins observes that Christian Palestinian radicals who were of Leftist orientation were seen as enemies by the West during the Cold War, a time when the United States in particular viewed an assertion of Islamic identity in Muslim lands as a bulwark against secular socialism. More recently the American hegemony over Iraq has witnessed the de facto ethnic cleansing of a Christian community whose roots date back to 1st century. It is a commonly told story that at some point in their life a Christian Arab in Jerusalem will encounter an evangelical Protestant from the Southern United States who is not well versed in the region’s history, and finding out that they are a Christian, will inquire of the Arab when they converted to Christianity. Europe is still the faith, and the faith is still Europe. At least for some.

Saint_Elijah's_Monastery_1The story which Philip Jenkins tells is negative, positive, or neutral, depending on perspective. A Christian may see the decline into dhimmitude of the people who were once the root of the faith. A Muslim may see the spread among people who adhered to an imperfectly preserved revelation of true religion the genuine true religion. A Japanese Buddhist may view the change in religious culture as simply a sectarian and political matter in the history of an alien people. It is a tale of memories lost, and consigned to the dustbin of history. The great traditions of Eastern Christianity are dying, the liturgies, processions, and the public buildings. In northern Iraq the cistern of an ancient Christian monastery was being used as a latrine by the Republican Guard before the arrival of American troops. The Iraqis were literally shitting on their own past, as they were almost certainly mostly descendants of Syriac Christians. But that past was one that was lost to them, no longer claimed by them. And so it was that in ages past the ancestors of the Muslims who had been Christians had torn down or neglected the idols of Marduk for the Christ. Such is the way of the world, civilizations and cultures rise and fall, a fact reiterated repeatedly in The Lost History of Christianity.

We live today on the cusp between ages, a time of demographic, cultural, and technological tumult. People are recreating their own past, reshaping their own present, and concocting fantastic futures. Philip Jenkins reminds us that cultural memory can be ephemeral, that even a thousand years may fade into imperceptibility. The values which we hold right, true, and proper, may simply be the fashion of the age. Our ideas may not echo down the generations, but hurtle toward oblivion. I do not know Philip Jenkins’ personal beliefs in the details despite his professed adherence to Anglican Christianity, but his work is a sobering reminder to Christians who believe that the day is coming when all will bend the knee to their Lord that that day will not arrive at their pleasure. Their Lord works in mysterious ways, He giveth and He taketh.

* Over the past few centuries many of the churches have come into the Roman Catholic fold, though retaining their ancient liturgies.

** One has to be be careful not to overdo this, and I would assert that Jenkins does do so in this section. Many Syrian Monophysites in particular were Greek speakers.

Image Credits: Andres Arranz, Doug, Luke Ford, Wikimedia Commons

• Category: History, Science • Tags: Christianity, Culture, Islam, Religion 
🔊 Listen RSS

The-Tenth-Parallel On the face of it Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam is a book whose content is summed up accurately by the title. The author recounts her experiences in various African and Asian lands which straddle the tenth parallel north of the equator: Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. It is a story told through personal narrative, the author’s, and the numerous people who are themselves embedded in larger forces welling up from below and descending from above. One can accurately describe The Tenth Parallel as a travelogue. But it is also a time machine, as Griswold surveys worlds which are a clear simulacrum of those which we know only through works of history; empires of faith, the lands of God’s platoons. As such, The Tenth Parallel is also a narrative which describes an alien world of ideas, outside of our conventional categories and classes. Many of the preconceptions and expectations which we bring to the table are “not even wrong” in the lands Griswold traverses, and what has been learned must sometimes be unlearned. This is not Newtonian Mechanics, where a cold and objective eye surveys the terrain and reports back positions and trajectories across space and time. An awareness of the author’s viewpoint is critical, while the viewpoint of her sources are plain. Finally, your own presuppositions and experiences as a reader shape the ultimate “take home” message which Eliza Griswold stitches together across her disparate sojourns.

eliza-newAs for the author, she is informs you about the details of her background repeatedly. Judging a book by its “cover” you see a young white Christian woman tasked to report on the turmoil in the lands of black and brown folk, many of whom are not Christian themselves, and many of whom are ardently Christian. But Griswold’s vantage point is more nuanced, she is the daughter of Frank Griswold, a prominent cleric in the Episcopal Church of America, who was a participant in the consecration of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. This event has come close to rending asunder the Anglican Communion, of which the second largest district is covered by the Church of Nigeria (though arguably Nigeria has more practicing Anglicans than Britain, the largest district). In many ways in terms of core values I suspect that Muslims and Christians in Nigeria share more with each other than they do with Eliza Griswold. Her meetings with Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, always seem fraught with tension because it is as if Eliza Griswold’s very being serves as a witness for the liberal mainline Protestant tradition in the face of the muscular and unsubtle evangelical Protestant Christianity she observes all around her. The author’s own subjective viewpoint as a liberal Christian (at a minimum culturally, she published no precise statement of faith) interweaves with the story she tells much more subtly in most contexts than it does when she engages with Graham and his coterie. It is as if they bring with them an awareness of American culture wars and to some extent force Griswold to play her part. The author’s peculiar perspective is always there and should never be forgotten. It does not take much reading between the lines to infer that Eliza Griswold is not sympathetic to the methods of Western evangelical Protestants who believe it is their Great Commission to bring the whole world to their own faith. This is not a conclusion which is “wrong” or “right” in a conventional sense, but derived from a set of values, which the reader may or may not share.

1040The bigger canvas on which The Tenth Parallel is painted is is the idea of the 10/40 Window. This is the broad swath of the World Island between the tenth and fortieth parallels north latitude. These are the lands of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and traditional Chinese religion. The vast majority of the world’s non-Christians reside in this zone, and in the past generation Western evangelicals have focused their efforts on spreading their message from Morocco to China. All of the specific conflicts explored in The Tenth Parallel can be viewed through a 10/40 lens, though Griswold is obviously surveying the world of Islam more specifically.

The author emphasizes that the conflict between Islam and Christianity in these lands is often an old one, and she illustrates this point by retelling the story of the first age of global muscular evangelical Christianity, that of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But even that is simply a later episode of a millennial story. Globalization is often conceived of in terms of economic factors of production moving across borders, but in the pre-modern world it was more often ideas which spanned political units of organization. The expense of moving goods and services across civilizational boundaries meant that such international commerce was restricted to high-value luxuries. But ideas could flow easily because they were theoretically weightless for each marginal unit of meme.

Prior to the rise of Islam there was a Buddhist Age in Asia. From the south of India, to Transoxiana, to Japan, Buddhists traveled via the Silk Road. The monk Kumārajīva, who was instrumental in translating many Buddhist texts into Chinese, was reputedly the son of an Indian Brahmin and a Tocharian princess, a native of the Silk Road city of Kucha. In the 7th century the young Anglo-Saxon Christian Church was headed by an Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, who was born in Anatolia, lived under Persian rule, and finally fled the Islamic conquests. The Christians of South India have a long history of communion and connection with Middle Eastern Christianity, first the Persian Church, and later the Syrian Orthodox Church. The current phase of religious globalization is far less of a departure from the norm than the current age of mass migration, economic specialization, and the movement of commodities and manufactured goods.

In fact the ultimate roots of the story in The Tenth Parallel go back to the Axial Age, over 2,000 years ago, with the emergence of what we used to term “higher religions,” forms of supernatural belief which are embedded in institutions, have philosophical scaffolding, and are formalized and flexible enough to move across tribal boundaries in a coherent manner so as to maintain their integrity of identity. That is, religious ideas don’t simply transfer across groups, religious systems do. In our more sensitive age these are referred to as world religions, or organized religion. Christianity, Islam and Buddhism are exemplars. In the past Judaism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism all had variants which transcended tribal boundaries, though these are traditions which have more or less re-tribalized themselves of late. These tribe-transcending religious systems have served to smooth the paths of travelers who could appeal to the solidarity of belief and practice across differences of ethnicity or geographical origin. The lives of Ibn Battuta and Xuanzang both attest to this. Without the charity and hospitality of co-religionists they would never have been able to complete their treks. But what brings us together can also divide, and the boundaries between world religions are often fraught with misunderstanding and incommensurability of religious foundations. Quantitative historian Peter Turchin terms the regions where world religions meet “meta-ethnic frontiers.”

Clash_of_Civilizations_mapMeta-ethnic frontiers are a touchy subject today. “Right thinking people” tend to dismiss the importance of the concept, it being too associated with Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. They reject the idea of the clash of civilizations, and assume that the book which gave rise to the term aligns with their preconceptions of the central argument. Most of the criticisms of Samuel Huntington’s work, imperfect and yet thought provoking, are of a kind where I strongly suspect that the critic hasn’t read the original, but rather is engaging nth hand expositions of the thesis. Many of the enthusiastic exponents of the clash thesis also have clearly not read Huntington’s work, which warns against neoconservative enthusiasms and suggests the necessity of a practical modus vivendi in a multipolar world riven with fissures of values. Macrohistory is generally slotted into one’s ideological preference, in large part because the principals in the discussion aren’t genuinely interested in academic issues but are looking for rhetorical devices. Academics can themselves get caught up in the game. Consider, Historian challenges assumptions about religious conflicts:

Associate professor of history Brian Catlos has spent years researching how Christians, Muslims, and Jews interact.

“Where my research and data leads, though not intentionally, is to debunk the notion of a conflict of civilizations–a conflict between groups of people who identify themselves as Christians, Jews, or Muslims and who articulate their struggle as a result of ideology and national identity,” said Catlos. “Rather what’s really behind history and contemporary human affairs is the interest of relatively small groups who often interact without regard to ideologies, national, or religious boundaries.”

Catlos observed that engaging in this type of historical research is his way of testing common assertions that there is a fundamental and irresolvable conflict between Christian and Muslim, or Jewish and Muslim, cultures. He points out that throughout history, there has been a widespread phenomenon of elites interacting with whoever will serve them best.

Such grand “common assertions” are propounded by people who are stupid. The stupidity can at the root be due to ideological preference (i.e., they know that reality varies with their ideology, but they ignore reality), ignorance, or simple lack of cognitive ability which would allow for the ability to construct models with greater subtly and nuance. It’s just as ridiculous as the inverted narratives which presuppose that religious conflicts are simply aberrations against a long history of interfaith amity. The “interfaith” movement as we understand it today is to a great extent a product of a historical moment. In particular, its roots lay in the ecumenical strand within liberal Protestantism, which eventually expanded to Christianity more generally, and finally to all world religions.

map-konfBrian Catlos’ book, The Victors and the Vanquished: Christians and Muslims of Catalonia and Aragon, 1050-1300, does refute a simple narrative of religious conflict, but, I do not believe it refutes a complex narrative of religious conflict. It is plainly wrong to assert that in every case a Muslim sides with a Muslim, and a Christian sides with a Christian. Reality is not carved out of such stark simplicities, else all scholarly endeavors would have transformed themselves into physics. There are exceptions even in cases where meta-ethnic solidarity was in clear evidence. In 1683 the Habsburg monarchy managed to obtain the support of many of the German princes who owed notional fealty to them and the crown of Poland in their battle against the Ottomans. Much of the rest of Christian European sentiment was on the side of the Hapsburgs, a fact which is notable because of the relatively recency of the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants in Germany. This set of conflicts had polarized elite opinion on the continent and in the British Isles. But by the 1680s the tide had turned and Europe wearied of internecine divides in the face of the Ottoman attack. The unanimity was such that France was vilified in some circles because of its tacit alliance with the Ottomans, despite the fact that the French relationship with the Ottomans stretched back centuries. This was to a very large extent a religious war in the minds of many despite the fact that it could also be interpreted in a more conventional framework of how geopolitical conflicts emerge out of structural parameters.

But there were Christians who traveled with the advancing Ottomans to batter themselves against the walls of Christendom. When it came to the Eastern Orthodox, who had long been Ottoman subjects, and had little necessary affinity for Western Christianity, this may seem somewhat unsurprising. But there were Protestants who fought for the Ottomans. Protestants such as Thököly Imre fomented the conflict, and supported the Ottomans, against their fellow Christians. But the historical context of this alliance makes it entirely comprehensible why these Protestants had little fellow feeling for their Roman Catholic brethren. For decades the Austrian Habsburgs had persecuted Protestants and slowly re-Catholicized their domains by means soft and hard (on the soft side, inducements so that prominent Protestant families would return to the Roman fold, on the hard side a choice between expulsion or conversion in the towns). A grand Christian front against Islam was all well and good in the abstract, but for Hungarian Protestants their proximate existence as a people was dependent on a Muslim shield against their aspirant overlords, who they knew would have reimposed Catholicism upon them. The present day religious map of Hungary reflects these historical accidents. Culturally about ~25% of Hungarians are of Protestant origin, and they are concentrated in the eastern regions of the Magyar lands which were not re-Catholicized because they were under Ottoman hegemony. In contrast, what was Royal Hungary, became overwhelmingly Catholic thanks to the success of the Hapsburgs and their confederates in grinding down the Protestant majority to triviality.

scatterWhat is important is not to deny systematic biases and long term trends when you average out the seemingly random set of alliances which emerge between peoples and individuals based on immediate contingencies. It could be that in most cases alliances between polities don’t line up neatly on civilizational or confessional lines, but, over centuries non-trivial systematic biases matter. They matter insofar as the Reconquesta succeeded despite the infighting between Christian potentates. The rivalries were put aside at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. Over most of Iberia’s history in these centuries because of geographical proximity it may have been that most of the conflict was between Muslims and Muslims, Christians and Christians. But when evaluating on a civilizational scale if these lower level conflicts “average out,” then the systematic biases which track meta-ethnic identities can be highly significant. In the course of a few years it is ridiculous to speak in civilizational terms, but in the course of centuries it is precisely the boundaries of civilizations which wax and wane.

These intergenerational ebbs and flows of affinity, ideology and identity, are at the heart of Eliza Griswold’s narrative. In the early 20th century black Africa was operationally a “pagan” continent. Muslims and Christians were thin on the ground, generally restricted to narrow elites. The vast populace still adhered to their traditional tribal religions. As an example, Senegal, which is ~90% Muslim today, was probably only minority Muslim in 1900. Though it has arguably been part of the Dar-ul-Islam for a thousand years the peoples to the south of the Senegal river were only lightly touched by Islamic civilization. In the 20th century modernization, the rise of mass culture and communication, has produced a much deeper Islamicization in African societies where organized religion had previously been a feature of narrow urban elites. But as Eliza Griswold notes the Muslims were not the only ones at the march in Africa. European Christians saw in the “Dark Continent” a treasure trove of souls to be won, so that today Africa is split between Muslims and Christians, with Sub-Saharan Africa being majority Christian. Only in enclaves in coastal West African nations does traditional religion manifest in the public sphere, organizing itself as Vodun. Elsewhere the God of Abraham reigns supreme.

Religion_distribution_Africa_cropAfrica’s adherence to world religions has resulted in the believers aligning themselves with international concerns. Griswold points to this when observing that the religiously split city of Kaduna has Christian neighborhoods with the names Haifa, Jerusalem, and Television, while the Muslim neighborhoods are Baghdad and Afghanistan. What has Kaduna to do with Jerusalem? In concrete terms not much, but symbolically a great deal, and for humans symbolism has concrete consequences. The story Griswold tells throughout The Tenth Parallel is the integration of local concerns and tensions with global dynamics. In Nigeria Islam is closely connected to the Hausa and Fulani identities, while many of the southern ethnic groups are staunchly Christian (though many of the Yoruba have converted to Islam as well). Islam has a long history in Nigeria’s north, and clearly the southerners associate it with the past depredations of Muslim states. In Islamic law it is not legal for Muslims to enslave Muslims (though there are a fair number of “work arounds”), so the fact that West African Muslims were on the border of the Dar-ul-Islam meant that they had a ready export to the rest of the Muslim world in the form of black slaves. Long before Europeans were purchasing Africans “sold down the river,” African Muslims were selling slaves across the Sahara. With the rise to dominance of Christianity in southern Nigeria there was now an organized rival to Islam as meta-ethnic identity. A meta-ethnic frontier had come into being in central Nigeria.

In the Philippines, Malaysia Indonesia and Sudan, Griswold observes repeatedly the intricate dance between ethnicity, history, and religion. In both Indonesia and Malaysia non-Muslim ethnic minorities adhere to Christianity as a way to preserve their distinctive identity and particular history in the face of the assimilative power of the dominant Islamic culture of maritime Southeast Asia. Though outside the purview of The Tenth Parallel the same dynamic is operative in non-Muslim mainland Southeast Asia. Karens in Burma, Montongards in Vietnam, and Hmong in northern Thailand, view adherence to the Buddhism of the ethnic majority of these nations as a step toward assimilation and loss of ethnic identity. Though Christianity is just as alien in nature to the shamanic spiritual traditions of these peoples as Buddhism, it serves as a distinctive ethnic marker in regions where affiliation to the two religions tracks ethnicity perfectly. And, it also allies the Christian minorities with a powerful civilizational international.

In eastern Indonesia the Christian Ambonese, converted during the period of Dutch rule before Islam had swept so far east, were often partisans of the colonial regime against the efforts of the predominantly Muslim independenc movement. The case of the Ambonese points to a general resentment of the majority culture in many regions impacted by European colonialism. It seems plausible that without European involvement many of the “hill tribes” of eastern India and Southeast Asia would eventually have been assimilated into the ethno-religious mainstream, as many of their predecessors had been. In the process though they would have lost their identity, the cost of social harmony being conformity and homogenization. Whether the perpetuation of ethno-cultural distinctiveness through the alignment of particular groups with different meta-ethnic world religious identities is good or bad is strongly conditioned upon your own specific viewpoint. But in The Tenth Parallel Eliza Griswold shows that from Africa to Southeast Asia the general dynamic is similar. The cleavages shake out in a familiar form, despite the local origins of the conflicts.

800px-Taj_Mahal,_Agra,_IndiaOf course despite the subtitle there’s more to religious conflict than that between religions. There is also the conflict within religions. Eliza Griswold’s clear discomfort with the image which evangelical Protestants were projecting to the Muslim world of Christianity is an instance of that. But so is the strife which emerges within and across the sects of Islam. The standard model posits the rise of a Fundamentalist Islam at war with local Sufi traditions. There is a great deal to this story, as far as it goes. But there is a precision and clarity with Fundamentalist Islam, which is really often world normative Islam shifted toward a Saudi Salafi tinge, which does not exist with “moderate Islam” or “Sufi Islam.” By its very nature locally inflected Islam is diverse, and can’t be bracketed under a catchall term on any substantive grounds except to point to its negation of Salafi or reformist Islam. The rise of internationalist Salafi Islams is another case of cultural globalization, and its roots go back centuries. Several hundred years ago many regions of the Islamic world, confronting European powers on the rise, or declining Islamic orders such as that of the Ottomans, entered into a period of reform which gave birth to fundamentalisms of various flavors. The Deobandi movement in India, the Wahhabis of Arabia, and the Fulani jihad may all be considered instantiations of a broader international pattern. Pushing against this were a diverse array of local Islams, many of which lacked the coherency of the reformists who claimed to be bringing Islam back to its first principles. The success of the local Islams varied. In Arabia the Wahhabis allied with the House of Saud and eventually rode the latter’s victories to religious supremacy in most of the peninsula. The Wahhabi ascendancy has been marked by a physical destruction of monuments to rival Islamic traditions, as well as the despised position of Shia within the kingdom. In South Asia the fundamentalist reformists have not swept all before them, as the numerical preponderance of other traditions attests to, though arguably in in Pakistan they have influence out of proportion to their numbers. In Indonesia and Malaysia the fundamentalists are a small minority among the Muslim majority, which varies in its adherence to world normative Islam in any case.

And yet how much should we make of this division within Islam, or those within Christianity? In both Malaysia and Indonesia the governments encourage conversion to Islam by the remaining groups not aligned with a world religion. Despite her conflicts with fundamentalists in her own religion Eliza Griswold did in the end agree to pray with Franklin Graham. There are wheels within wheels. Focusing on one specific wheel, one layer of the dynamic, does not deny that that wheel and dynamic may be nested within others, and that others may be nested within it. The frictions and conflicts on the tenth parallel play out on multiple hierarchical levels. Individuals have their own interests, as do ethnic groups, and finally meta-ethnic groups. Modern Westerners tend to have a methodological individualistic bias, and so reduce group actions to an aggregate of the material incentives and preferences of groups of individuals. This is far too pat and simple. But how to define interests and a meta-ethnic group, a religion, can be easily problematized. As I noted above it is highly likely that the Nigerians killing each other over ethno-religious differences share much more in values and outlook with each other than they do with Westerners. But human conflict often hinges on symbolic markers and issues. One can muse in the vein of “War, what is it good for?”, but at the end of the day war is. Similarly, as an atheist I do not believe that there is a God in fact, but the fact of the beliefs of others that God is is highly consequential. It is less important what the real Islam or Christianity is, than what Islam or Christianity is for the people at any specific place and time. By and large in a world characterized by economic growth driven by non-zero sum interactions violent physical conflict produces absolute losers on all sides. But the heuristics and biases research tells us that quite often people care less about the height of the hill than their own peak position atop it. What Eliza Griswold documents in The Tenth Parallel is of great interest precisely because it puts the spotlight on the individual psychology of people who are caught up in eternal macrohistorical dynamics, processes which we’ve only begun to see as destructive for the aims of greater human wealth and health in the last few centuries.

Addendum: I believe that anyone who finds The Tenth Parallel of interest would benefit from reading some of Philip Jenkins and Peter Turchin‘s works.

Image Credit: Wikimedia, Antonin Kratochvil

Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"