E2: Who was Emir AbdelKader, the hero of humanity?

Over three hundred years ago, a poorly-armed Algerian Muslim leader battled one of the best-equipped armies in the world – and against all odds, held his ground.

For a while.  The story of that struggle, and the legacy of that warrior, is one of the greatest stories in Islamic history.

That warrior was of course Abdel-Kader, an Algerian Sufi.

He was more than just a warrior; Abdel-Kader was also a statesman, a diplomat, a Muslim scholar, a strategist and tactician, and a humanitarian.

He’s one of the most interesting personalities of the 19th century, but more than that, he matters a lot to the 21st century.

And to me…

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Transcript

Over three hundred years ago, a poorly-armed Algerian Muslim leader battled one of the best-equipped armies in the world – and against all odds, held his ground.

For a while.  

The story of that struggle, and the legacy of that warrior, is one of the greatest stories in Islamic history.

That warrior was of course Abdel-Kader, an Algerian Sufi.

He was more than just a warrior; Abdel-Kader was also a statesman, a diplomat, a Muslim scholar, a strategist and tactician, and a humanitarian.

He’s one of the most interesting personalities of the 19th century, but more than that, he matters a lot to the 21st century.

And to me.

Sting

I’m Muddassar Ahmed from Toledo Society, and I’m excited to welcome you to the second episode of a 3-part series, ‘Who Was Emir Abdel-Kader, the Hero of Humanity?’

Intro

During the time of King Charles X, the imperial French army defeated the Ottomans in Algeria, and occupied the country. While the French consolidated their control over his homeland, a young Abdel-Kader was traveling to Alexandria, Egypt, and Damascus, Syria, to study with great religious scholars.

Abdel-Kader returned, energized by his learning, and eager to oust the French from his homeland. An opportunity presented itself when Abdel-Kader’s father was asked to lead a campaign against the French, but he refused and abdicated. That responsibility fell to the young Abdel-Kader instead.

In the fall of 1832, this 24 year-old young man found himself unexpectedly elected Emir, or Commander of the Faithful, of all Muslims of Algeria.

Sting

Abdel-Kader quickly established himself in western Algeria, and used his formidable skill in diplomacy and religion to get the major tribes of his region to unite behind him. The French Commander-in-Chief, General Desmichels, quickly came to understand that Abdel-Kader was fast becoming a formidable enemy.

Though he had limited technology and weaponry, Abdel-Kader’s tactical brilliance in battle pressured the French to give over an entire province to his control. They figured this would limit Abdel-Kader’s influence, but instead this raised his profile, and rallied more Algerians to his cause.

Very soon, Abdel-Kader was winning the battle for hearts and minds, and building a modern society, attracting multiethnic and multireligious talent to his cause. Frustrated by his growing influence, the French appointed a new Commander-in-Chief, and resumed hostilities. Abdel-Kader had no choice but to go to war again.

And that’s something important to understand.

Unlike the world we live in today, back in the 19th century, nations didn’t really have fixed boundaries. They were either expanding or contracting. More powerful nations swallowed up weaker nations. There was no United Nations to appeal to, no concept of international law or universal human rights.

Which makes Abdel-Kader’s career all the more astonishing. 

StingIn 1834, in the scorching heat of summer, French and Algerian forces clashed at the Battle of Macta, which was a resounding victory for Emir Abdel-Kader. Hostilities continued, but to the disadvantage of the French. At the Treaty of Tafna, the French surrendered even more control to Abdel-Kader, with one caveat.

He would have to recognize French imperial authority.

That only made him seem more powerful: Now he was negotiating with Paris itself.

After this great victory, some of the Emir’s followers called on Abdel-Kader to declare himself ‘Sultan,’ but Abdel-Kader declined the title—he was content in his authority as a spiritual leader, and as a leader of the resistance. His job was to understand what God wanted of him, and to bring it about in the world.

Some religious people are narrow-minded and provincial. The more they believe, the less room they have for people different from themselves. But there is another kind of religious person, the kind of person who starts to think universally, and begins to believe all people deserve the same rights.

Sting

Over the following years, Abdel-Kader’s territory expanded across Algeria, and in this land he built a remarkable state. He convinced Jews and Christians to join him in building his country and running his government.

He lived frugally and encouraged others to live within their means. Abdel-Kader shunned accolades for himself, but cultivated scholarship, celebrated poetry, and urged his people to invest in modern education.

His new nation of Algeria had much promise, but also had a problem.

In 1839, the treacherous French not only violated the Treaty of Tafna, but launched a scorched-earth campaign, brutalizing the Algerian people.  

Though Abdel-Kader would fight to defend his country and his people, he was unable to effectively counter French aggression.

Sting

But even when severely weakened, Abdel-Kader upheld morality, decency, and compassion. When he lacked sufficient resources to feed his French prisoners-of-war, much to their surprise, he released them.

He went out of his way to protect houses of worship, as well as priests and nuns.

In the end, though, the French were just too powerful. No matter how remarkable his victories, Abdel-Kader couldn’t sustain a conflict against an industrial war machine.

By 1842, Abdel-Kader had lost almost all his territory.

In 1847, Abdel-Kader was forced to surrender to the French. Just a few days before Christmas, he agreed to live the rest of his life in exile in the Alexandria that enchanted him when he was a young man. To prove his goodwill, Abdel-Kader even handed over his beloved war horse to the French governor.

At his surrender, a sisterhood of nuns joined him—they had been moved by his decency, and keen to ensure he was not mistreated. Maybe they had a hunch, a feeling that the French would betray him. And as it happens, they did.

The French went back on their word, though Abdel-Kader had been nothing but faithful to the terms of his surrender. The French captured Abdel-Kader and instead of taking him to a peaceful exile in Egypt, sent him to France, with his family and followers, where they were cruelly imprisoned.

Sting

But as news of Abdel-Kader’s fate and condition spread across France, public agitation grew. The Emir was highly regarded by the French elite, and famous among the French public. He was recognized as a noble leader who had the respect of his countrymen, a man who fought heroically, and treated his enemies with compassion and decency.

Here was a man who put others before himself. His homeland before pride. His faith in God before his own glory. Domestic and international pressure escalated; even the British government was involved in making the case for the Emir’s freedom.

In 1852, after almost five years of captivity, then French President Louis Napoleon Bonaparte released the Emir and his entourage.

President Bonaparte agreed to a 100,000-franc annual pension, on the condition that  Abdel-Kader never again return to or interfere in the affairs of his beloved Algeria.

It was a bittersweet victory, but the Emir upheld the terms of his release to the end of his life.

Sting music

By 1855, the Emir had settled in Ottoman Damascus. Shortly afterwards, a conflict erupted, between members of two religious communities, the Druze and Maronite Christians, living in the city.

The Emir intervened and played the part of peacemaker. Abdel-Kader not only protected Christians with his tongue, but with his body, and at the risk of his life.

Many in France were stunned, and deeply moved.

Here was a man whose homeland they had invaded, who they had imprisoned, but who then stood up for their co-religionists in a bloody conflict. Abdel-Kader was elderly, and exhausted from years of war and imprisonment, but boldly rushed forward to protect the vulnerable Christians in a moment of heated sectarian tension.

And all of this, at a great risk to himself.

What was to say Abdel-Kader would not be killed for defending them?

What sort of person makes that kind of sacrifice?

This was an age when Islamophobia ran rampant throughout Europe. The popular opinion of Muslims was not very good, and frequently hostile. Muslim-majority countries were seen as fair game in competitions for conquest and control, and many European intellectuals assumed Islam was inherently backwards, ignorant, and regressive.

In that kind of world, the legacy of Emir Abdel-Kader seems all the more remarkable.

When the French proposed the Suez Canal, Abdel-Kader played a critical role in drumming up Arab support for the massive project. He was present at the opening, too: This is a reminder not just of his desire to be a bridge between worlds, but of his ability to think strategically, beyond the immediate and into the future.

He understood the importance of this project to the Muslim world, and threw his weight behind it.  

It may seem to us that the worlds of the West and of Islam are doomed to misunderstanding, tension, or even outright conflict, but in the Emir Abdel-Kader we find an alternative vision. Rather than encourage tension between Christians and Muslims, he encouraged the Islamic mission of understanding and compassion.

And this melted the hearts of the French public, and European society, humanizing Muslims. So much so that, during his captivity, the citizens of Bordeaux, France, mobilized to have his name placed on the French Presidential ballot! They preferred a Muslim Abdel-Kader ruling France in place of its current government.

STING:

From Toledo Society, I am Muddassar Ahmed, and you have been listening to episode two in a three-part series: “Who Was Emir Abdel-Kader, the Hero of Humanity?”

Coming up in our next and final installment, we’ll explore how Abdel-Kader became the kind of man he was, and how those lessons still speak to us, one hundred and fifty years after his death.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode and season and don’t forget to let us know your thoughts, rate us and please donate as well! 

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