By Robert Fisk
Emir Abdelkader was a Muslim, Sufi, sheikh, humanist, protector of his people against Western barbarism, protector of Christians against Muslim barbarism, so noble that Abe Lincoln sent him a pair of Colt pistols.
Muslim historians claim Abdelkader saved 15,000 Christians, which may be a bit of an exaggeration. But here was a man for Muslims to emulate and Westerners to admire.
After the Manchester massacre… yes, and after Nice and Paris, Mosul and Abu Ghraib and 7/7 and the Haditha massacre – remember those 28 civilians, including children, killed by US Marines, four more than Manchester but no minute’s silence for them? And of course 9/11…
Counterbalancing cruelty is no response, of course. Just a reminder. As long as we bomb the Middle East instead of seeking justice there, we too will be attacked. But what we must concentrate upon, according to the monstrous Trump, is terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. And fear. And security. Which we will not have while we are promoting death in the Muslim world and selling weapons to its dictators. Believe in “terror” and Isis wins. Believe in justice and Isis is defeated.
So I suspect it’s time to raise the ghost of a man known as the Emir Abdelkader – Muslim, Sufi, sheikh, ferocious warrior, humanist, mystic, protector of his people against Western barbarism, protector of Christians against Muslim barbarism, so brave that the Algerian state insisted his bones were brought home from his beloved Damascus, so noble that Abe Lincoln sent him a pair of Colt pistols and the French gave him the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour. He loved education, he admired the Greek philosophers, he forbade his fighters to destroy books, he worshipped a religion which believed – so he thought – in human rights. But hands up all readers who know the name of Abdelkader.
We should think of him now more than ever. He was not a “moderate” because he fought back savagely against the French occupation of his land. He was not an extremist because, in his imprisonment at the Chateau d’Amboise, he talked of Christians and Muslims as brothers. He was supported by Victor Hugo and Lord Londonderry and earned the respect of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon III) and the French state paid him a pension of 100,000 francs. He deserved it.
When the French invaded Algeria, Abdelkader Ibn Muhiedin al-Juzairi (Abdelkader, son of Muhiedin, the Algerian,1808-1883, for those who like obituaries) embarked on a successful guerrilla war against one of the best equipped armies in the Western world – and won. He set up his own state in western Algeria – Muslim but employing Christian and Jewish advisors – and created separate departments (defence, education, etc), which stretched as far as the Moroccan border.
It even had its own currency, the “muhamediya”. He made peace with the French – a truce which the French broke by invading his lands yet again. Abdelkader demanded a priest to minister for his French prisoners, even giving them back their freedom when he had no food for them. The French sacked the Algerian towns they captured, a hundred Hadithas to suppress Abdelkader’s resistance. When at last he was defeated, he surrendered in honour – handing over his horse as a warrior – on the promise of exile in Alexandria or Acre. Again the French betrayed him, packing him off to prison in Toulon and then to the interior of France.
Yet in his French exile, he preached peace and brotherhood and studied French and spoke of the wisdom of Plato and Socrates, Aristotle and Ptolemy and Averoes and later wrote a book, Call to the Intelligent, which should be available on every social media platform. He also, by the way, wrote a book on horses which proves he was ever an Arab in the saddle. But his courage was demonstrated yet again in Damascus in 1860 where he lived as an honoured exile.
The Christian-Druze civil war in Lebanon had spread to Damascus where the Christian population found themselves surrounded by the Muslim Druze who arrived with Isis-like cruelty, brandishing swords and knives to slaughter their adversaries.
Abdelkader sent his Algerian Muslim guards – his personal militia – to bash their way through the mob and escort more than 10,000 Christians to his estate. And when the crowds with their knives arrived at his door, he greeted them with a speech which is still recited in the Middle East (though utterly ignored these days in the West). “You pitiful creatures!” he shouted. “Is this the way you honour the Prophet? God punish you! Shame on you, shame! The day will come when you will pay for this … I will not hand over a single Christian. They are my brothers. Get out of here or I’ll set my guards on you.”
Muslim historians claim Abdelkader saved 15,000 Christians, which may be a bit of an exaggeration. But here was a man for Muslims to emulate and Westerners to admire. His fury was expressed in words which would surely have been used today against the cult-like caliphate executioners of Isis. Of course, the “Christian” West would honour him at the time (although, interestingly, he received a letter of praise from the Muslim leader of wildly independent Chechnya). He was an “interfaith dialogue” man to please Pope Francis.
Abdelkader was invited to Paris. An American town was named after him – Elkader in Clayton County, Iowa, and it’s still there, population 1,273. Founded in the mid-19th century, it was natural to call your home after a man who was, was he not, honouring the Rights of Man of American Independence and the French Revolution?
Abdelkader flirted with Freemasonry – most scholars believe he was not taken in – and loved science to such an extent that he accepted an invitation to the opening of the Suez Canal, which was surely an imperial rather than a primarily scientific project. Abdelkader met De Lesseps. He saw himself, one suspects, as Islam’s renaissance man, a man for all seasons, the Muslim for all people, an example rather than a saint, a philosopher rather than a priest.
But of course, Abdelkader’s native Algeria is a neighbour of Libya from where Salman Abedi’s family came, and Abdelkader died in Syria, whose assault by US aircraft – according to Abedi’s sister – was the reason he slaughtered the innocent of Manchester. And so geography contracts and history fades, and Abedi’s crime is, for now, more important than all of Abdelkader’s life and teaching and example. So for Mancunians, whether they tattoo bees onto themselves or merely buy flowers, why not pop into Manchester’s central library in St Peter’s Square and ask for Elsa Marsten’s The Compassionate Warrior or John Kiser’s Commander of the Faithful or, published just a few months ago, Mustapha Sherif’s L’Emir Abdelkader: Apotre de la fraternite?
They are no antidotes for sorrow or mourning. But they prove that Isis does not represent Islam and that a Muslim can earn the honour of the world.
Robert Fisk is an English writer and journalist. He has been Middle East correspondent intermittently since 1976 for various media; since 1989 he has been correspondent for The Independent, primarily based in Beirut.