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.

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.

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.

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