[On September 12, 2018 the Abd Elkader Project held a seminarÂ introducingÂ the Muslim scholar turned fighter turned PoW, turned exile, turned hero to the world, honored by Abraham Lincoln with a gift of dueling pistols and by a small town in Iowa that named itself after him, and by the International Red Cross for being the man whose humane treatment of prisoners of war according to Islamic law inspired the Geneva Conventions. The following account is my impressions of the highlights of the program and is not intended as a transcript.]
Civil Society Voices.
Tamara Shehadah (Our Muslim Voices and The Abdelkader Ambassador Program) said thatÂ Abdelkaderâ€™s parents taught him to seek and respect diversity. The Abdelkader Ambassador Program focuses on bridge building between different people and cultures, starting with food. She quoted Emir Abdelkader: â€œKnowledge is the box, the keys are the questions.â€
James Patton (International Center for Religion & Diplomacy) explained that telling stories of faith heroes can be a bulwark against recruitment for extreme and violent groups. He feels that the key to encouraging the young by Emir Abdelkaderâ€™s example is to present him as one who struck a balance between piety and strength. Promoting him as a model among young people unaccustomed to taking historical figures as heroes may be done through new media. The celebrated values of the Emir could be advanced by highlighting current figures who share his values.
Daisy Khan (WISE), focused on the need to flesh out heroes in the current climate. Muslims around the world are unable to mention a single hero other than the Prophet Muhammad. There are two busts in headquarters of the Red Cross: its founder Henry Dunant and Emir Abdelkader, whom Dunant credited as the inspiration for the Geneva Conventions. He insisted on the respectful treatment of prisoners. He was also admired by an American lawyer in Dubuque who named his settlement in Iowa after him. When the Emir died, the New York Times called him one of the great men of the century. Explaining his protection of Christians, he said, â€œThat which we did for the Christians we did to be faithful to Islamic law.â€ He believed that after spiritual knowledge the most important knowledge is political knowledge. He was deeply Muslim but he also grew while in prison in France. He saw no conflict among religion, science, and politics, although he “discovered that politics shrinks the spirit while the sacred enlarges it without limit.”
Tamar Miller (AEP) said her first visit to Iowa was to Elkader. She proposed a list of questions to provoke reflection on Emir Abdelkader, starting with “What? Iowa, Islam and Muslims?” Think about the fact that the Mother Mosque of America is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Reflect on the power of words to evoke (jihad, shariah, hijab, ijtihad, etc.). Why did Emir Abdelkader lay down arms after seventeen years? Why did Lincoln give the Emir a pair of colt pistols?
Azhar Hussein (Peace & Education Foundation, Pakistan) spoke of Abdelkaderâ€™s Reception in Pakistan. An Urdu version of John Kiser’s book, Commander of the Faithful, was introduced into Pakistan. Al Shariah magazine wrote three articles about the book. An al-Qaeda propagandist criticized the Emir for giving up his fight against the French. Hussein’s organization seeks to expand the program by engagement with religious leaders and work with madrassas. They met with a salafi leader who has completely turned around by the Emir’s story.
Lakhdar Brahimi (Former Algerian Foreign Affairs Minister and UN diplomat) explained that Algeria’s struggle for independence in the 1950s and 60s was a continuation of his struggle against French occupation in the 19th century. If Abdelkader has been Algeria’s George Washington, his struggle took several generations and it is not over today. He is a leader for the 21st century, but not the only one. Among todayâ€™s youth are a tiny minority who speak of jihad as random acts of violence and cruelty. (At times the desire to understand is seen as a desire to condone.) There was a call in France to amend the Qurâ€™an put out by those who seem to have no familiarity with it. Are those who divide their compatriots against one another fighting terrorism or are the planting the seeds of further radicalism? Brahimi quoted Muhammad Arkoun’s phrase “the clash of ignorances” (ignorance not only of the Other but of contexts).
â€œThe forms of worship may change but not the Master.â€–Emir AbdelKader
Andrea Bartoli, Ph.D. (Seton Hall School of Diplomacy) said that Emir Abdelkader invites us to look at the military in a much different way, something closer to the origin of America when the military was much closer to the people. What do you do when your country is invaded? The Emir’s answer is to look to knowledge–not just military knowledge, but to know your enemy, which is difficult when you are talking about people far away and speaking in another language. The French wondered who is this person who is treating prisoners well and challenging us to do the same. He taught Europeans how to treat prisoners in a way that years later we call the Geneva Conventions. History is made when years later we go back and ask the meaning of what happened. It is appropriate for a Catholic to be speaking at a Protestant seminary about a Muslim and to be grateful we are not killing one another. We need to deepen the American conversation because America is very important. Religious freedom comes to Catholics through American Catholics. Look at how many Sunnis outside America do not consider Shiâ€™a to be Muslims.
Major Matthew H. Peterson (US Marine Corps–NOT speaking for the Marine Corps) told how John Kiser read an article he had written on cultural knowledge and the value of relying on knowledge from people in the region and doing cultural training in advance. “The Cargo Pocket Koran” was born of his meeting with Daisy Khan. Major Peterson noted that whenever we were successful on the battlefield it was because of people we knew and not because of superior firepower. The Qur’an is too big for an infantryman to carry on his back, and thus the need for a condensation that would fit into the pocket of his cargo pants. In primitive languages the word for stranger and enemy are the same. Next year we will be sending young men and women to Afghanistan who were not even born on 9/11. There are one million members in the military compared to a thousand in the state department. The face of America is an armed 19-year-old from a conservative Christian state. For Peterson, the Emir’s main contribution is in the area of just war theory. There are just wars fought unjustly and unjust wars fought justly. John McCain said, “War is wretched beyond description.” Sun Tzu also argues the mastery of war is to win without firing a shot. You canâ€™t defeat thought with military weaponry.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute