John Kiser is the author of Commander of the Faithful, a challenging, engrossing account of a nineteenth-century emir and warrior who became a world-famous symbol of righteous living, selflessness, and justice. (Learn more about Commander in the Patheos Book Club.) Kiser has long been known for contrarian approaches to sensitive subjects, but his views are guided by deep historical research and an eye for critical details—his projects are exercises not in offering alternatives, but corrections.
I asked Kiser some questions about the Muslim warrior at the heart of Commander and what he has to teach us today.
Many people I know would be shocked to find out that there's a town in Iowa called "Al-Qaeda with an R"—at least, that's one way to explain how to pronounce "Elkader." How did a Midwestern town come to be named for Muslim warrior?
Elkader was the name given a new settlement on the Turkey River by Timothy Davis of Dubuque, in 1846. Davis was a well-read and respected lawyer (he hailed originally from Utica, New York) who followed international news through a popular digest of the foreign press (mostly the United Kingdom) called Littels Living Age. The English reported frequently and admiringly on Abdelkader's David vs. Goliath struggle with French invaders. An admirer of Emir Abdelkader, whose cunning and yet honorable resistance was widely reported, Davis surprised his business partners when they asked him to name their new settlement. Knowing that Abdelkader was too long and strange a name for America tongues, he proposed an abbreviated form: Elkader.
How was Abdelkader regarded by other Americans?
If Davis is an indicator, Americans saw in Abdelkader's resilience and chivalry toward his enemies a reminder of their own David vs. Goliath struggle against English colonialism. They could still empathize. Furthermore, the character of the emir as reported in the foreign press was of a noble spirit who treated his prisoners respectfully, kept his word, and paid his debts.
Later, in exile, he won the admiration of the world for his humanitarian intervention in Damascus when, in 1860, he and his Algerian faithful rescued thousands of Christians from a Turkish inspired pogrom. When asked why he did it, he simply explained that it was his duty as a Muslim to protect innocents. When he died in 1883, he was hailed by the New York Times as "one of the few great men of the 19th century." The masonic lodges of the U.S. and even the Shriners claimed him as one of their own.
It is important to know that many other Muslims in Damascus also protected Christians from the mobs, but they were on a smaller scale and were not singled out for praise by the western leaders.
Is there a modern-day Abdelkader? Who do you see embodying "true jihad"?
Yes, though there are not many widely known. If the criterion for being "Abdelkader-like" is possessing moral courage to do the right thing as guided by faith or conscience, then there are many "unmediatized" little Abdlekaders around today. Examples include the Muslims who protected Christians during the riots of this spring in Cairo; the English Muslims who put themselves on the line to protect shops from looters during the recent unrest; the dozens of imams and journalists in Algeria who were killed by Islamists during the 1990s (see my Monks of Tibhirine) because they openly condemned the terrorism being committed in the name of Islam; and Pakistani imams and civic leaders today who are being killed or threatened because they condemn what is being done in the name of Islam just as the emir chastised the mobs for acting like animals and not knowing what their faith commands. Jihad is about living and struggling righteously and not allowing hatred and revenge to overwhelm compassion and forgiveness.
Shiekh Mohamad Bouslimani, the widely respected religious leader of the pacifist Hamas party in Algeria (one that is unrelated to Palestine Hamas—rather, this is a non-violent wing of the Brotherhood, now called MSP) was kidnapped in1993 for refusing to issue a fatwa justifying the killing of unarmed civilians. After a week in captivity, it became clear that he was convincing his captors of the errors of their understanding of the divine law. For his courage to resist perverting the law, his throat was slit.