Abd el-Kader and Syrian refugees

Abd el-Kader and Syrian refugees December 1, 2015

For more than a year now, more than a dozen Republican candidates for president have been crisscrossing Iowa, site of the first-in-the-nation caucus they all hope will give them momentum to capture their party’s nomination for president.

Only Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum have made campaign stops in tiny Elkader, Iowa, but Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio have all stumped for voters in nearby Dubuque. Jeb Bush was campaigning in Dubuque today.

So they’ve all likely ridden past signs for Elkader. They’ve seen its name on maps of Iowa. They’ve got organizers and operatives working there.

Given the cowardly, inhospitable opposition to Syrian refugees that all of these candidates have decided to make an issue, it’s safe to say that not a one of them knows anything about the person that gave Elkader, Iowa its name.

Elkader, the seat of Clayton County, was founded in 1846 and was given its name to honor Abd el-Kader, whose military exploits at the time were breathlessly recounted in American newspapers and popular magazines. El-Kader was a Sufi religious scholar who had arisen to become a brilliant general and warrior, uniting the Bedouins of Algeria in an astonishingly successful war against the powerful, larger and better-equipped army of France. His military success and his pious gallantry and graciousness in victory had made him a folk hero around the world.

Ultimately, the larger French army won its brutal war in Algeria. El-Kader surrendered and, betrayed in defeat, was forcibly taken to Paris. His presence there was meant to serve as a symbol of France’s victory, but he became, instead, a highly sought consultant visited by political and military leaders from all over Europe and the world. His popularity among the French people was such that the announcement of his freedom four years later was followed by a parade through the streets of Paris.

Abd el-Kader and his family moved to Damascus where he settled in 1855, intending to live out his days resuming the religious studies that the French invasion of Algeria had interrupted decades earlier. In a sense, then, el-Kader was a Syrian refugee, but he was a refugee who found refuge in Syria.

That’s not why his story is so relevant to the current American debate over Syrian refugees, though. That’s only a small part of what it is that all those Republican presidential candidates desperately need to learn from his story.

The really relevant bit came later, in 1860, when the Ottoman governor overseeing Syria sought to incite sectarian violence that he would then use as a pretext to slaughter the thousands of Christians living in that city:

The plan appears to have been this: that the Druze would incite attacks against Christians, “forcing” the Turks to step in and escort the Christian community to a citadel outside the city for their protection. There, Druze conspirators would be waiting to slaughter them all.

That’s from a terrific summary of this story by Rany Jazayerli, who’s better known as a writer for Baseball Prospectus and a smart, devoted fan of the Kansas City Royals. (Congrats on the World Series, Rany.) But he knows this story well — his great-great grandfather served under Abd el-Kader in Damascus.

The following is excerpted from his post “Abd El-Kader and the Massacre of Damascus,” which draws heavily on John W. Kiser’s book Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader (the italicized portions are quoted from Kiser’s book):

On July 8th, Abd el-Kader had learned the details of the plot between the Druze and the Turks, and had rode out of the city to confront the Druze cavalry before they attacked. He – and his small army – succeeding in, ahem, convincing the Druze to call off their attack. Meanwhile, though, he was oblivious to the fact that there was a mob already sweeping through Damascus.

He returned to the city on July 10th, and found chaos before him. “Abd el-Kader soon learned that the Turkish troops assigned to protect the populace had been ordered into the citadel or were lackadaisically watching as rioters were running amok, burning homes and slaughtering Christians.”

Abd el-Kader, photographed in Damascus, 1860.
Abd el-Kader, photographed in Damascus, 1860.

And at that moment, Abd el-Kader, the man who had led his Muslim people in a war against Christian invaders for 15 years, knew what he had to do. And that he had to do it quickly.

First he and his men hurried to the French consulate to offer safe harbor; the French were immediately joined by Russian, American, Dutch, and Greek diplomats looking to flee the scene. And then:

All afternoon of July 10, Abd el-Kader plunged into the chaos of the Christian quarter with his two sons shouting: “Christians, come with me! I am Abd el-Kader, son of Muhi al-Din, the Algerian. … Trust me. I will protect you.” For several hours his Algerians led hesitant Christians to his fortresslike home in the Nekib Allée, whose two-story interior and large courtyards would become a refuge for the desperate victims.

“As night advanced fresh hordes of marauders – Kurds, Arabs, Druzes – entered the quarter and swelled the furious mob, who, glutted with spoil, began to cry for blood. Men and boys of all ages were forced to apostatize and were then circumcised on the spot. …Women were raped or hurried away to distant parts of the country where they were put in harems or married instantly to Mohammedans,” wrote [Charles Henry] Churchill of the events. “To say that the Turks took no means to stay this huge deluge of massacre and fire would be superfluous. They connived at it, they instigated it, they shared in it. Abd el-Kader alone stood between the living and the dead.”

Abd el-Kader returned with his men, and every Christian they could pull away to safety, to his estate. …

Well over a thousand Christian refugees were housed inside Abd el-Kader’s home, making it so crowded that people could not sit or lie down, let alone use the facilities. So Abd el-Kader arranged for small groups of his Algerian men to accompany the Christians, in groups of 100, to the citadel outside the city – the same citadel that the Druze had originally planned to use to slaughter them.

The residence was finally emptied out and cleaned. Abd el-Kader then circulated word that a reward of fifty piasters would be paid for each Christian brought to his home. For five days, the emir rarely slept, and when he did, it was on a straw mat in the foyer of his residence where he dispensed reward money from a sack he kept by his side. As soon as 100 refugees were collected, his Algerians escorted them to the citadel.

The worst of the rioting ended on July 13th, 1860. … At least 3,000 Christians were killed before it was all over. Abd el-Kader was credited with saving upwards of 10,000 Christians, including the entire European diplomatic corps.

This is a story that needs to be remembered. And with the current ugly turn in American politics, it seems particularly important to remember it now.

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