You wouldn’t think of Elkader, Iowa as a center for fostering interfaith dialogue and a better understanding of Islam. And yet, in 1845 its founder, land developer Timothy Davis decided to name the town after Abd el-Kader, a religious and military leader who led the fight for Algerian independence.

Although his story is not well known today, at the time he was admired around the world by his contemporaries, including Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria and Pope Pius IX. When he died in 1883, the New York Times described him as “one of the few great men of the century.  Thenobility of his character won him the admiration of the world.”

Portrait of Abd el-Kader (1864) by Stanisław Chlebowski

Portrait of Abd el-Kader (1864) by Stanisław Chlebowski

Emir Abd el-Kader was not only a military leader, he was a scholar and humanitarian.

He was responsible for saving the lives of up to 10,000 Christians during anti-Christian riots in Damascus.  He is credited with securing Arab support for the Suez Canal. He is remembered as the founder of the modern nation of Algeria.

Abdelkader saving Christians during the Druze/Christian strife of 1860. Jan-Baptist Huysmans.

Abdelkader saving Christians during the Druze/Christian strife of 1860. Jan-Baptist Huysmans.


When Kathy Garms, member of Bethany Lutheran in Elkader, learned the story of her town’s namesake, as a teacher she believed his story could be the catalyst for better relationships with our Muslim neighbors.  Together with John Kiser, author of “Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abdelkader,” they launched an essay contest based on the life of the Emir.

This soon evolved into the Abdelkader Education Project (AEP) to promote

“cultural literacy, civility and respectful engagement between all people through education and outreach drawing on Emir Abd-el-Kader’s life story and values – courage, integrity, intellect, humility, and compassion – that transcend culture and faith traditions.”

In 2015 the Northeastern Iowa Synod council voted to recognize the work of the Abdelkader Project and partner with it in ministry. For the past three years, I have been honored to serve as a judge in its annual essay contest.Each year the AEP hosts a forum where presenters, educators, and essay award winners networking and discuss timely topics to build bridges between cultures based on Emir’s values with relevance for today.

The winner of the college essay was Nadia Elamin, a Muslim who attends the University of Pittsburgh.  She was unable to attend.  .

Michaela Hill, Angelina College, Lufkin, TX

Michaela Hill, 2nd Place College Essay Winner


The second place winner was Michaela Hill, who Angelina College in Lufkin, Texas spoke of how she developed a love of learning about heroes at the private Christian Academy she attended growing up. “But I never learned about this Muslim hero.

His story needs to be added to the other stories of great people to learn from as role models.”


Reem Esseghir, Noor-Ul-lman School, Monmouth Junction, NJ,

US High School essay winner Reem Essighir, came to Cedar Rapids from her home in New Jersey to participate in the forum.


Amen Gabre, First Place Iowa High School Essay Winner

Amen Gabre, First Place Iowa High School Essay Winner

The winner of the Iowa High School essay was Amen Gabre from Scattergood Friends School, West Branch.  She is an exchange student from Egypt.  Her family is Christian and were estranged from their Muslim relatives.  She had been raised with a negative view of Muslims but the process of learning about Abd el-Kader and writing her essay helped her see Islam in a different light and even opened the door to reconciliation with her Muslim relatives.

“We should be willing to stand up for other people and defend them in the face of ignorant or intolerant attacks regardless of their choice in faith,” Amen wrote in her essay.


Second Place Essay Winner, Grace Rodman, Central High School, ElkaderzG

Iowa Second Place Essay Winner, Grace Rodman, Central High School, Elkader



After the forum, we were given a tour and served tea and baklava at The Mother Mosque of America, the oldest standing Mosque in the United States.


Photo Sep 16, 3 52 21 PM (1)


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About The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson

The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson has been Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA for the Northeastern Iowa Synod since late 2013. Part of her job description is to help leaders and congregations use social media and other digital means for outreach and mission. She writes and edits this blog as well as runs the social media accounts for the synod.




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