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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Leaving aside fine points of identity politics, however, there have been few, if any, military leaders on the Arab side as successful as Abd el-Kader, not only in warfare but in the politics of nation-building, though on that score his ultimate failure was one of the reasons he decided to stop fighting the French. According to Kiser, Abd el-Kader taught that the Koran specifically enjoins military leaders to avoid wars in which lives will be lost for no gain--which is another way of saying that soldiers do not exist for the sake of their commanders' vanity.

A superb horseman and brilliant tactician who specialized in the long-distance raid against better equipped but slower forces, Abd el-Kader was also a strict disciplinarian who punished his men for decapitating fallen enemies when they could have been decapitating standing ones. He also fully appreciated the value of peace. There have been very few Muslims as willing to seek a reconciliation of civilizations on the basis of what might be called liberal values for the here and now and monotheism for the transcendent evermore. Abd el-Kader proclaimed jihad against France on the grounds that it would be heretical to allow non-Muslims to govern a Muslim territory; he called off jihad when he gave up the fight in 1847. As far as anyone knows, no other modern Muslim spiritual-military leader, certainly not one of his stature and renown, has ever done this.

So was he, on this score, hopelessly out of touch with public opinion in Arab countries? Possibly--unless it is the politicians who have been missing the point for a century-and-a-half. The "street," at least in the voice of popular rai (blues) singers, still admires him, considers him a master to learn from and emulate in matters of love as well as war.

His contemporary admirers included most of the French military class, keen observers of the French conquest of Algeria such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Abraham Lincoln, among others. But France did not repay Abd el-Kader with a bigness of spirit commensurate with his. To the contrary, the French betrayed his trust in the peace-with-honor he had agreed to and, in an eerie precursor of an episode during the independence war of the 1950s, hijacked him with family and entourage when he thought he had safe passage. The story of Abd el-Kader is a real-life illustration of Rudyard Kipling's "Ballad of East and West." Despite the deep respect with which men on both sides of the French-Algerian clash regarded one another, nothing really came of it: Respect did not lead to meeting. Abd el-Kader ended his life in Damascus, living on a French pension, and the French never found a way to make Muslims feel comfortable with their rule in North Africa. Conflict was bound to come again, as Tocqueville warned, and it did.

Of course, no two countries are the same--nor two "savage wars of peace," nor revolutions, terrorist campaigns, or civil wars. We can learn from history on condition that we understand it is history. The French-Algerian clash of civilizations, which went on for 132 years, and is presently in the 47th year of its sequel, is surely instructive; but no other Christian country is like France, and no other Muslim country is like Algeria. And no two adversaries produced such soldiers as the Emir Abd el-Kader and the general, later marshal, who finally overcame him through scorched earth and serial massacres, forced relocations and the deployment of light cavalry, Thomas Robert Bugeaud.

As he did in The Monks of Tibhirine, his powerful account of the murder of Trappist monks in Algeria during the terror that shook the country in the 1990s, Kiser is at his best sketching characters by showing them at critical moments in their lives. Bugeaud and Abd el-Kader were studies in contrast: Sons of privilege, the future emir was a model of filial obedience while the future Marquis de la Piconnerie and Marshal of France was a truculent rebel who ran away from home and enlisted, to the dismay of his aristocratic family, as a private in the Napoleonic army.

Both, however, were essentially conservative men: Abd el-Kader remained steadfast to his inherited duties and responsibilities, instructing his people that the beginning and end of man is to be found through religious devotion; Bugeaud had a stormy career in politics and the army, becoming at once one of the more influential anti-republican leaders of his time and a champion of progress, promoting engineering projects to develop Algeria's rich agricultural potential.