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Why a Book About an Obscure Arab Hero?
The Second Republic, born two months after Abd el-Kader's surrender, disowned the agreement of the monarchy. The new government tried to save face by bribing him to release France from its word. Unmoved by offers of luxury living in France, he insisted on holding France to the word of its generals. Twenty-five members of the emir's entourage died in clammy royal prisons from disease and despair—victims of French politics in which popular opinion distrusted the emir's word, and weak governments lacked the courage to honor its predecessors' commitments. In 1852, Abd el-Kader was liberated thanks to an admiring President Louis Napoleon and a lobby of Catholic clerics, intellectuals, military officers and former prisoners whom the emir had treated with unexpected humanity. Abd el-Kader was sent to Bursa in Turkey on a generous French pension where he lived for two years; then to Damascus where he was enthusiastically received by the Arabs and joined the mixed Jewish, Christian, and Muslim intellectual stratum of the city.
On July the ninth, 1860, his life of prayer, study and teaching was shattered. Angered by rebellious Christian minorities who refused to pay their taxes, Turkish authorities instigated reprisals that turned into a virtual pogrom. The emir converted his huge home into a sanctuary for the European diplomatic community whose embassies were the first targets of the violence. He and a band of Algerians plunged into the nearby Christian neighborhood and brought thousands to the safety of his residence. Two days later, an angry mob at his door demanded he turn over the Christians. Abd el-Kader refused, saying it was against the teachings of Islam to kill innocents. The crowd melted away in the face of his determination to defend those under his protection.
After the riots, Abd el-Kader was credited with saving 10,000 lives, including those of the American, British, French and Russian consuls. Hailed throughout Europe, Russia and America as a great humanitarian, he received the French Legion of Honor, gifts from Pope Leo IX, President Lincoln, Queen Victoria, and other heads of state. His most valued accolade, however, was a letter from Chechen Emir Shamil, who praised him for his courage to do what his faith required—to protect the innocent.
During the last twenty years of his life, the emir became a spiritual bridge between the European and Muslim worlds, epitomized by the role he played garnering Arab support for the Suez Canal project and his participation in the Masonic movement. Defying the skeptics, Abd el-Kader remained true to his word and never returned to Algeria. Upon his death in 1883, the New York Times hailed him as " one of the few great men of the century."
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