Fourteen years later, another American would honor Abd el-Kader as a great Muslim and great humanitarian. This time it would be President Abraham Lincoln...

I am often asked how I learned of the emir and why I became interested in him. Abd el-Kader's story is actually a sequel to The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith Love and Terror, a book I wrote about Trappist monks in Algeria whose kidnapping and gruesome death riveted France in 1996. Their monastery in the hamlet of Tibhirine lay on the slope of a mountain with a steep cliff face called Abd el-Kader Rock.

Curious about the name, I was told Abd el-Kader was the Algerian George Washington, the father of modern Algeria, who had once directed a battle from the top of the mountain. Abd el-Kader was the first Arab to create a semblance of tribal unity in order to combat the French occupation. But in defeat, I noted a resemblance to Robert E. Lee. He was gracious, magnanimous, respected by his enemies, and deeply religious. As I learned more about Abd el-Kader from admiring Catholics in Algeria, I realized that the monks and Abd el-Kader shared a similar view of God, followed similar communal rituals, even dressed alike, and that their faiths found both a real and symbolic fraternity in Tibhirine.

One day a Catholic sister in Algiers gave me a copy of an excerpt from Abd el-Kader's Spiritual Writings which she kept handy in her office.

...If you think God is what the different communities believe -- the Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, polytheists and others -- He is that, but also more. If you think and believe what the prophets, saints and angels profess -- He is that, but he is still more. None of his creatures worships him in his entirety. No one is an infidel in all the ways relating to God. No one knows all God's facets. Each of his creatures worships and knows him in a certain way and is ignorant of Him in others. Error does not exist in this world except in a relative manner.

No wonder the Catholics in Algiers admired him. Abd el-Kader had enunciated the spirit of Vatican II one hundred years before Pope John XXIII wrestled new, inclusive, and revolutionary declarations from the leaders of the Church: The Kingdom of God is bigger than the Church; salvation is ultimately a mystery. Abd el-Kader's God lived in a big tent. No religion possessed God. I liked this Arab's way of looking at his Creator and the different religions.

The French monks in Algeria liked to say: La richesse, c'est la différence. We learn about ourselves by taking note of the other. Living amid pious, friendly Muslims, the monks became better Christians. Likewise, Abd el-Kader became a better Muslim by his friendship with Christians while moldering as a prisoner in France a hundred years earlier.

Algiers circa 1830

His resilience and ability to cope with defeat, betrayal and despair, and still live in an exemplary manner, was something I admired. Could I not learn from his life? The term "spiritual journey" has become overused and trivialized, yet who is not on a journey, spiritual or otherwise? Are we not all seekers of something? But are we seeking the right things? How do we get them? What do we have if we do get them? How do we react when life throws unexpected boulders in our path? Abd el-Kader's tradition gave a simple answer. Seek knowledge, for knowledge also leads to right conduct. For the emir, knowledge is of two kinds: knowledge of external things, which he compared to pools of rainwater that come and go, and inner knowledge -- the knowledge of the soul, the divine presence within us, which is like a fountain that never goes dry.

Arab Horsemen in Battle

Then came 9/11. An already bad image of Arabs and Muslims became even worse. A "good Arab," or a "good Muslim" story seemed more than ever worth retelling in a world being rapidly polarized around false differences. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it seemed to me that the French experience of occupying Algiers, "liberating" it from the Turks, fighting Abd el-Kader for fifteen years while trying to win the hearts and minds of Muslims  -- all this offered badly needed knowledge of a world that is new to Americans, yet in its tribal and religious complexity has not changed much since the 1830s.

For France today, Algeria is a world full of bittersweet memories, though mostly bitter; a world of toxic, hate-filled struggles that pitted French against Arabs, Arabs against Arabs, and Frenchmen against each other that lives on today. It is a history that helps explain the deep misgivings of our nation's oldest ally toward America's "civilizing" adventure to uplift people who share many of the same basic values and needs, but whose culture mixes them in quite different proportions.

In addition to Abd el-Kader's, there were wise French voices of that era -- minority voices that were overwhelmed by combinations of racism, greed, stupidity, and nationalistic arrogance. They, too, are part of this story, one that is merely the opening chapter of a struggle that continues in Algeria today where the emir's memory is invoked by all sides.

Visit the Patheos Book Club for more resources on Commander of the Faithful, including an interview with author John Kiser.