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.”
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.
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 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.
The winner of the college essay was Nadia Elamin, a Muslim who attends the University of Pittsburgh. She came to Cedar Rapids from her home in New Jersey to participate in the forum.
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.”
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.
To learn more:
- Abdelkader Education Project
- Elkader Fosters International and Interfaith Relationships (2015 God’s Work. Our Blog)
- Abdelkader Education Project hosts forum in Cedar Rapids
- Small American Town, Big Algerian Legacy
- Tiny Iowa town combats Islamophobia
- Why the Iowa City Named After a Muslim Hero Matters Today
- Iowa Town Named for Muslim Hero Extols Tolerance