The Magazine

Algeria's Patriot

The meaning for the present of France's colonial past.

Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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Commander of the Faithful

The Life and Times
of Emir Abd el-Kader

by John W. Kiser

Monkfish, 400 pp., $28.95

The Algerian military-religious leader Abd el-Kader fought and lost a 15-year war to resist the French conquest of his country following the French overthrow of the previous colonial power, the waning Ottoman Turks. Later, exiled by the French in considerable pomp and honor to Damascus, he resumed a career as a religious teacher working toward Christian-Muslim entente.

John Kiser's elegant biography, with just enough contextual history to allow the reader to situate a Sufi mystic tribal leader in his times, ought to be of interest to anyone trying to figure out whether or not we should sigh and embrace another 150 years of Huntingtonian pessimism regarding clashing civilizations.

In the mid-19th century, Abd el-Kader was the most famous Arab in the world, after Egypt's Mehmet Ali (who was Albanian). He remains famous in France and North Africa, but has been largely neglected in the historical memories of other countries. The fact is that, notwithstanding his own (and his French adversaries') belief that he had achieved peace with honor and it was time to turn the page, he remains something of an original, with neither precedents nor sequels, in the history of civilizations in conflict around the Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent. Some of his writings are in print. They are not, evidently, much studied in the precincts of Foggy Bottom--or, for that matter, the Quai d'Orsay.

There ought to be a reason for this. It is readily understandable why a military-religious genius who happened to be a man of exceptional personal decency should be a historical hero in Algeria. Fighting against a technologically and numerically superior foe--fighting, moreover, according to a code that in many respects was far more honorable, or chival-
resque as we might say, than the scorched-earth-kill-'em-all battalions of rogue generals devoured by personal ambition--Abd el-Kader is the personification of what every nation sooner or later needs if it is to endure and triumph in the long term: a Lost Cause, a defeat and humiliation by foreign aggressors from which eventually it recovers.

Kiser explains why Abd el-Kader remains of interest to the French, who know something about losing, and it is clear enough why the Algerians would keep him among their National Best. Abd el-Kader gave up in the end, unwilling to lead people to slaughter in a war he knew he could not win, either militarily or politically; but resistance to French rule persisted and, of course, it had its day finally, in 1962, with mixed results.

But elsewhere? Abd el-Kader is known in the African-Arab world and the larger Muslim world, but how well and to what consequence? If Arab-Islamic culture cannot produce another such leader, what does this prove? Or conversely, is Abd el-Kader far more a precursor than we realize, and would he consider today's jihads as justifiable as the ones he proclaimed? Kiser wisely prefers to leave these questions implied and unanswered, but he provides material for thinking about them.

The Arab wars have been, from the beginning, internal as well as external. If the umma (the Muslim community as a whole) constantly must do battle with fitna (mischief) in the rear, how can a single unifying leader ever emerge to credibly and victoriously fight, or negotiate with, an external adversary? The Algerians themselves have understood this better than most, and it is not accidental that they have produced a line of diplomats who have served ex officio, grappling with conflicts not directly involving their country and addressing bottle-necked issues with supranational schemes.

For in the end, Abd el-Kader did not get his act together. This is a crude way to put it, and Kiser makes a strong case that no one else could have come as close as he did. But disunity among the tribes could not be overcome, while the French consolidated their hold on the Mediterranean port cities and learned to fight on the hard terrain of Algeria.

Kiser refers to Abd el-Kader as an Arab, but he would have referred to himself as an Arab mainly by contrast to the Ottoman Turks, who had been ruling North Africa for the better part of four centuries. Abd el-Kader thought of himself as a Muslim. His people were the clans of the Hachem tribes that spread from east to west across present-day Algeria. The broader population was a melting pot of indigenous Berbers, Arabs, Oriental Jews, and sub-Saharan Africans. The Jews, with strong linguistic skills and connections among the French, were among his best sources of intelligence.