A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Elkader, Iowa: leading the way

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 15, 2008

My parents are coming into town for a visit tomorrow, and I can hardly wait to see them. In the meantime, my father alerted me to another newspaper article on Elkader, the small Iowa town with big Algerian roots that I have blogged about before. I learned something from this article: that Algeria is as proud of its Iowa connection as Iowans are of their Algeria connection – and foreign governments taking pride in their links to Iowa is not something that happens every day :). Thank you for helping Elkader’s citizens recover from this summer’s flooding, Algeria.

Elkader shows how to build relationships with Muslim world“, by guest columnist John Kiser:

As estrangement between Muslims and non-Muslims grows in America, relations are warming in Clayton County, Iowa.

This year, the town of Elkader is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its namesake, Emir Abd el-Kader, a native son of Algeria. It is also showing what good relationships, listening and learning can accomplish.

Through much of the 19th century, Abd el-Kader was admired from the Great Plains to Moscow and Paris to Mecca: first as a chivalrous adversary of the French and later as a stoic prisoner who forced France to honor its pledge to grant him passage to the Middle East after voluntarily laying down his arms.Exiled in Damascus, he reached the summit of his fame by protecting thousands of Christians during a rampage in Damascus in 1860. President Lincoln, Queen Victoria and Pope Pius IX were among the many who sang his praises. Abd el-Kader was on his deathbed in 1883 when the New York Times eulogized, “…The nobility of his character won him the admiration of the world … He was one of the few great men of the century.”

If he were fighting America today in Iraq instead of France in Algeria during the 1840s, Abd el-Kader would be labeled a radical fundamentalist. But in Elkader, this town founded by German and Scandinavian immigrants, fear-mongering caricatures are not easily confused with more complex reality. Thanks to exchanges and close personal relations with Algerians, the Islamophobia peddled by some Americans does not find footing here.

How did such a name get planted in Iowa corn country? In 1847, Timothy Davis, a lawyer from Dubuque, named a new settlement on the Turkey River in Abd el-Kader’s honor. A reader of Littels Living Age, a digest of international news, Davis had come to admire this resourceful Arab David whose resistance to the mighty French Goliath had won him wide recognition. Memories of the American rebellion against British imperialism were fresh enough for Davis to see in the emir’s struggle a freedom-fighting cousin.

Abd el-Kader was a fundamentalist – he sought in all things to live according to God’s will as transmitted through the teachings of all the prophets from Abraham to Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. Their common message, he wrote, is to “glorify God and have compassion for His creatures. They differ only in the details. Each of his creatures worships and knows Him in a certain way and is ignorant of Him in others … No one knows all God’s facets. Error does not exist except in a relative manner.” Abd el-Kader was a fundamentalist who understood the fundamental unknowability of God.

The emir’s life was rooted in deep religious knowledge that required him to treat prisoners humanely, keep his word, end futile suffering after 15 years of struggle and save innocent lives. His Islam has little to do with the attention-grabbing violence presented by the Western media and glorified in the jihadist cyber world as martyrdom. True jihad lies in struggling with the axis of evil within – those inner demons that lead to violence and injustice. Christians know them as the seven deadly sins, among which anger and self-love are the most deadly.

Outside the Arab world and France, the memory of Abd el-Kader has been forgotten – except in tiny Elkader. Through a Sister City exchange between Elkader and the emir’s birthplace of Mascara, Elkader’s citizens have gained a new appreciation of the hospitality and generosity of the emir’s fellow countrymen.

Following the flood damage Elkader suffered this spring, the Algerian government sent $150,000 of assistance to this town of 1,500 residents. The spirit of friendship with Algeria and respect for Islam thrives because personal relations have been allowed to thrive.

America needs more exchanges with Muslims to break down stereotypes that feed suspicion and distrust of its fellow citizens. Muslims need reminding of the emir’s true Islamic righteousness, whose life is a rebuke to jihadists of today dominated by anger, violence and politics.

Kathy Garms, Elkader’s Sister City program director, put it well to the Algerian Parliament this summer. “Answers can come only through face-to-face communication, when everyone reaches outside their comfort zone to listen and work together in a spirit of goodwill.”

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