COMMANDER OF THE FAITHFUL: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader.
In “Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader,” John Kiser chronicles this complex individual and offers the military reader a unique insight into his strong leadership traits and the practice of “humanistic Islam.” Kiser also exposes readers to both successful and blundering French officers, offering the reader a primer in counterinsurgency tactics and the merits of cultural study that are applicable to U.S. forces in the Middle East today.
Abd el-Kader was born in 1808 to parents who groomed him for greatness. As a young man he acquired both basic and worldly knowledge, developed a love for and skill with horses, and learned the Quran by heart. Throughout the book Kiser painstakingly illustrates el-Kader’s worship of Islam as the basis of all his decisions. His faith is a unique brand of “humanistic Islam” that eschewed the extreme violence of the day and advocated compassion in the treatment of a vanquished enemy. El-Kader’s belief in Islam also included tolerance for Christianity and Judaism, choosing to recognize its similarities rather than today’s emphasis on otherness.
His intellect and knowledge served him well in fighting the French who invaded Algeria in colonial conquest in 1830. His father ceded leadership of the resistance to el-Kader in 1832, and he immediately united seven tribes in the effort. Kiser details numerous incidents throughout the book in which el-Kader was able to hold together the tribes through hardships and defeat. How he managed to mostly maintain the loyalty of fractious tribes is a good study into the motivations and passions of the Arab mind. How he managed to harass and defeat the French over the next 15 years while undermanned and outgunned is reminiscent of the Valley Campaign waged by Stonewall Jackson in 1862 and worthy of military study.
Kiser provides us the clearest window into the emir’s character with his detailed narrative of his time as a “prisoner of war” in France. In 1847, el-Kader had obtained conditions of surrender from the French that immediately were violated. He stoically maintained his insistence on these conditions through numerous changes in French government and public sentiment over five years. Incarceration involved not only the Arab combatants, but also their extended families. El-Kader had to maintain unity while enduring deaths of loved ones in prison conditions. Again, his immovable faith provided his bedrock of character, and his actions became the talk of French society. By 1852 most of the populace wanted Louis-Napoléon to release him, which he did to great fanfare.
The book provides a tantalizing story of a French adversary turned respected opponent. Christophe Lamoricière, a young engineering officer who first engaged the emir’s forces in combat in 1830, provides both a compelling personal story and professional military instruction to the reader. Lamoricière learned Arabic, studied the Quran, built sound relationships with the tribes, developed good intelligence and engaged with the Arabs on their own cultural terms.
Kiser documents many French officers who fight the emir throughout the book, but none is as pivotal or interesting as Lamoricière, who is an early example of employing cultural immersion to forward military objectives. At age 40, he was the youngest general in the French army when el-Kader surrendered his sword to him outside Djemaa Ghazaouet. There is also something here for the military intelligence professional in el-Kader’s use of spies and Jewish businessmen to understand French political and military maneuvering.
Kiser concludes by documenting the emir as protector and diplomat in his successful efforts to shelter and then obtain the release of Christians living in Damascus caught up in Lebanese unrest. For his heroics, el-Kader is presented a pair of Colt pistols in 1860 from none other than U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.
For the historical reader, it is always pleasing to discover a hidden gem. For the military student of the Middle East, it is prudent to study this warrior-statesman of Islam who had no permanent allies and made no permanent enemies. “Commander of the Faithful” provides us both and hits many facets of the complexities that Marine officers face today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This book is highly recommended to those who wish to study great men in mighty struggles who champion leadership, morality and personal discipline. It also is especially noteworthy in establishing the emir as the model of humanist Islam and shows how he applied the concept on the battlefield, in captivity, in diplomacy and (most importantly) in every facet of day-to-day life.