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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Abd el-Kader revered political authority when he thought it was wisely exercised: He and Louis Napoleon had something of a mutual admiration society. Kept under house arrest in France with a substantial entourage, Abd el-Kader successfully petitioned the emperor to let him live in exile, first in Turkey and then in Damascus. There he intervened to halt a massacre of Levantine Christians launched by Druze and Arab tribesmen. (Some historians believe the violence was instigated by the Ottomans, and if not stopped, might well have prefigured the Armenian massacres a generation later.) For this he was widely honored, with Abraham Lincoln, in particular, saluting this early form of trans-racial--Abd el-Kader would have insisted trans-religious--human rights interventionism.

Kiser commands the voluminous non-Arabic literature on the period, including the many biographies of Abd el-Kader, and wears his erudition lightly. Without any editorializing, Commander of the Faithful suggests that, on both sides, the problem consists of failure to attack what might be called the Abd el-Kader Question.

That question is this: Why, faced with a magnanimous and heroic adversary, did the French end up behaving treacherously as colonial masters? On the other side, notwithstanding their defeat, why did the Arabs fail to follow Abd el-Kader's teachings? The true jihad, he thought, consisted of fighting for the commandments contained in Islam, which is simply a tautological way of saying a Muslim is, by definition, a jihadist. But jihad in his conception is not war against infidels but the struggle, spiritual more than anything else, to come to terms in common devotion to the supreme being.

Why so few Arab thinkers have walked in the footsteps of this remarkable man might well be an interesting subject for another book.

Roger Kaplan is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.