Biography of a moderate Arab leader in an age of intransigence and empire building.
Freelance biographer and business writer Kiser (The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria, 2002, etc.) finds a meaty subject in early-19th-century Algeria, when French soldiers invaded the country, ostensibly to deliver it from Ottoman oppressors, only to find that the Algerians rather liked the Ottomans, “whose laissez-faire habits had left the tribes in relative freedom so long as they paid their taxes.” They did not like the liberty, equality, fraternity-spreading French, whom they ambushed in mountain passes and attacked in the city streets. The intellectual author of resistance was a jihadist emir named Abd el-Kader, a marabout (“a holy man or member of a religious brotherhood”) who kept much of the French army pinned down for several years until finally being captured. El-Kader played a gentleman’s game of war, accompanied by religious pronouncements meant for anyone with ears, along the ecumenical lines of, “No one is an infidel in all the ways relating to God.” The French emperor greeted El-Kader as a worthy foe, and arrangements were made to settle him in a grand castle within sight of the Pyrenees, even if some of the locals protested that he was a “monster of the desert.” Still, a prison is a prison, and El-Kader’s many friends in France eventually agitated to have him removed to Ottoman territory, where he became a respected governor and saved thousands of Christians from being killed in religious violence in Syria. As Kiser notes, he was so widely respected that the New York Times editorialized on his death that he was “one of the few great men of the century.”
Indifferently written and burdened by invented dialogue, but notable for illustrating that the meeting of civilizations need not always produce a clash.