By: Ambassador Idriss Jazairy, Executive Director of the Geneva Centre
6 September 2017 - Abu Temmam, a famous Arab thinker and anthologist of the 9th century, once said that “There are amongst people those who are dead but who remain alive by their evocation and those who are alive and well but who, for people, are dead”. By this standard, the Emir Abd el Qader al Jazairy is very much alive today, with city squares and streets across the world bearing his name and a city in Iowa in the US named after him. Not a year has elapsed without new books and innumerable articles published about this towering international figure. He was honoured by Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria, Tsar Alexander II, Sultan Abdelmajid I and, of course, Napoleon III – who, as Louis Napoléon earlier ordered his release from house arrest at the château of Amboise - and praised by Rimbaud, Voltaire, Browning and Thackeray.
The Emir fought the French invaders of Algeria for seventeen years from 1830 to 1847. He waged 116 battles against five princes, ten field-marshals and 150 generals. Despite the French army outnumbering his troops ten to one and using that weapon of mass destruction of the time - the mighty mobile cannon - the French conquest was was slow and laborious. In December 1847 the fighting officially ended, leading to what Algerians refer to as a treaty to end hostilities. The French called it, not ingenuously, a surrender. By this treaty the French committed inter alia to the transfer of the Emir, his family and followers to Alexandria or Acre. However, the treaty was shamefully violated by France.
This saga of the sword, although impressive, is not why the memory of the Emir is still so vivid in people’s mind to this day. His spiritual longevity is related to the universal character of the values he upheld and to the relevance of his legacy to contemporary concerns. His writings reflect this.
Despite the cruelty of the French invaders, the Emir led, in contrast, a chivalrous war. At the end of the 1830›s he introduced rules concerning the humane treatment of prisoners. This developed in 1842 into his Code for the Protection of Prisoners. He summoned, in the midst of the war, a congress of 300 of his most important decision-makers and had this revolutionary code adopted. The Code prohibited torture, a practice now reintroduced by a major power in the form of “waterboarding”. Upholding human rights in wartime is not easy. Even the UK announced last October that it would derogate during wartime to the European Convention on Human Rights. In the same spirit, it has decided to discontinue the Iraq Historic Allegations Team.
The Emir’s Code also prohibited the mistreatment of prisoners and the killing of unarmed enemy soldiers or prisoners. In his jails there were no “enemy combatants” prevented from enjoying basic human rights. Indeed, the code recognised the rights of prisoners even to have a chaplain and to share the same material conditions as the Emir’s own troops. He introduced the practice of exchanging prisoners. One first exchange took place at Sidi Khelifa in 1841. However, no further exchanges occurred because the French decided that what was taken away by force, whether prisoners or property, should only be regained by force.
Henri Dunant, the great Swiss humanitarian activist, is credited with having introduced the first code to protect war prisoners that led to the creation of the Red Cross but that was in 1863, some twenty years after the adoption of the Emir’s code. In February 2017 Ambassador Jazairy spoke on the Emir Abd el Qader to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. The present article is drawn from his Oxford lecture. Dunant had spent 15 years in Algeria before taking his world-famous initiative and he refers to the Emir in his correspondence so one may safely argue that Abd el Qader initiated international humanitarian law.
Abd el Qader was fighting to protect the community that had elected him. At that time the act of allegiance or bay’a was the prevailing form of selection of a leader by the people. We would call it an election today. This popular endorsement of his leadership took place first in the plain of Ghriss, in the green highlands of Western Algeria, then in the town of Mascara and then in other regions across the whole country, although not in Algiers which was under French occupation, or in Constantine. The Emir›s democratic credentials contrasted with those of the Dey of Constantine who was appointed by the Ottoman Sultan.
In his first acceptance speech the Emir committed himself to upholding the rule of law for government servants and citizens alike. All would be treated equally, with no favour shown to his relatives. This precluded conflicts of interest between State and family, a contentious political issue today. Having separated the executive from the judiciary, he also established a legal review court to challenge influence-peddling by the powerful, again a topical issue. His saga is an antidote to today’s islamophobia, a behaviour more readily accepted in some quarters as freedom of opinion where Islam is involved than would be the case for anti-Semitism.
The Emir evinced the true meaning of Jihad, a word distorted in the international media. The Greater Jihad for him, as for all true Muslims, is the fight against one’s own temptations and weak-nesses. To practise the Greater Jihad he resorted to Sufism, Islamic mysticism with its links to Christian mysticism. He also practised the Lesser Jihad, a right to self-defence as enshrined in the United Nations’ Charter. His Jihad was admired even in North America and led the Founding Fathers of the city of Elkader in Iowa to make him the symbol of their commitment to freedom in the 1850’s.
Today this correct understanding of Jihad has evaporated. Regrettably, this results from the fact that terrorist groups in the Middle East have misused the concept of “Jihad” to justify heinous crimes. Their hijacking of faith is no different from that of other terrorists such as those of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, who claim to invoke the Christian faith as their inspiration, or of Nigeria’s Boko Haram who do the same but in the name of Islam. These violent extremists manipulate religion to claim legitimacy for actions condemned by all civilisations. Where illiteracy or ignorance is widespread this alleged religious cover can be a good recruiting gambit.
What is worrying, however, is that the world media call these groups “Jihadis”, a barbarism which does not even exist in Arabic, actually confirming their alleged religious legitimacy. Rather than denouncing the criminalisation of Islam, they Islamise crime. The media thus provide such groups with recruitment publicity while stimulating in credulous people’s minds, both in the Middle East and in the West, a conflation of Islam with terrorism. Even the head of a major power who cursed the misrepresentation of facts by the media now falls into their trap. He does so by also equating Islam with terrorism not just in rhetoric but in action by shutting out of his land nationals from several mainly Muslim countries. This is providing additional unsolicited recruitment support for terrorist groups like the so-called Daesh. Increasing numbers of Muslims are offended and consider that their dignity is being trampled by this amalgamation. They respond with equally sweeping condemnations of the faith of their critics. This creates social tension at the local as well as the international levels.
The Emir had anticipated the populist antagonism we see today. Addressing what we now refer to as Islamophobic postures, he said, “When we see people deprived of insight who labour under the delusion that the principle of Islam is steeped in dogmatism, roughness, violence and barbarity, this is an opportunity for us to repeat these words: what is required is patience and in God we must confide”. In other words, he recommends to Muslims, who are under increasing pressure today outside their ancestral region, not to be overwhelmed by their anger over assaults on their dignity. Only spirituality, he advises, will enable wisdom and forethought to be the masters in full control of their minds and to provide a rational response. This applies totally to current provocations. Likewise, he might be referring to some contemporary doctrinaire preachers when he writes, referring to Islam: “The harm done to religious prescriptions can unfortunately be ascribed more to those who have claimed to uphold religion through inappropriate means rather than to those who have fought it.”
This Sharif, or descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, reaffirmed the great convergence between Abrahamic religions, in particular between Islam and Christianity. He asserted in a letter of July 1862 to a French bishop, Monsignor Pavy, that the teachings of both of these faiths were the same and could be encapsulated in two principles: the worship of God and compassion towards His creatures.
Our religions, he averred, only differ in the prescriptions provided as to how best to comply with these cardinal principles.
This brings the Emir to the conclusion in his book “Reminder to the Thoughtful and Notice to the Oblivious” that religions are complementary and all lead to tolerance. Thus religious intolerance or religious violence are oxymorons.
Tolerance was the hallmark of his magnum opus, The Book of Halts in which he wrote: “The Divine in itself espouses a variety of states and refuses to remain in a single manner of being”. In other words, he explains that the perception of the Divine by Christians corresponds to God’s reality but He is not only that. Muslims of all denominations perceive also a correct vision of the Divine but God is that and is also more than that.
The Emir goes onto say “Whoever limits the Real (that is the Divine) to one creed and does not recognise it in any other, whichever it may be, is in denial of God”. He concludes, "God embraces the beliefs of all His creatures as He embraces them with His mercy”.
This vision of a great convergence between Islam and Christianity, to be put at the service of the protection of all religious minorities across the world, needs to be re-discovered. It is advocated by the Quran itself (29:46) where God says: “Say: We believe in He who was revealed to us and who was revealed to you. Your God and our God is one and to him we are subservient”.
This really goes beyond tolerance which should only be a transitional stage towards empathy. As a Sufi, Abd el Qader saw that only through empathy with people of other faiths could one progress on the path to one’s own faith. Dialogue starts between you and me and then I become you and you become me; then we realise that there is only Him. That, of course, is the ultimate stage of mystical faith and wisdom.
It is no wonder, therefore, when in July 1860 civil strife broke out between Muslims and Christians in Damascus, where the Emir ultimately settled in exile, that he stood up courageously for the oppressed Christian minority.
There were 14,000 Christians in the town. The Emir, assisted by two hundred Algerian followers who had preceded or joined him in his Syrian exile, succeeded in rounding up under his protection 11,000 of them. Not over his dead body or that of his men would they let the angry crowds get at these Christians.
Foreign observers later asked him why he had risked his life to rescue these Christians when other Christians had invaded his native land, destroyed it and were colonising it. His reply was that he had fought the French for so long not because they were Christians but because they had invaded his country. As for rescuing the Christians of Damascus from sure death, he had just complied with the teachings of the Quran that states the following: ”Whoever kills a single soul wantonly is as if he had killed the whole of mankind and whoever saves one is as if he had saved the whole of mankind”(5:32). He added in a letter of 1862 to Monsignor Pavy that his action was dictated by a concern for the “rights of humanity”, an expression that preceded and anticipated the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 85 years later.
Such was the way this enlightened statesman, who was clearly ahead of his time, advocated the protection of minorities and the right to life, the most sacred of all human rights.
In compliance with the principle of Shura, the Emir made sure he had the full support of the population in order to lead the country democratically. He introduced the separation of the executive from the legislative authority and the principles of good governance. He rejected autocracy and consulted his officials before taking any major decision. He had an austere lifestyle and was detached from worldly possessions. Most of all, he introduced humanitarian law on the battlefield. He also upheld the “rights of humanity” including the right to life and the protection of religious minorities. He thus was the harbinger of the contemporary concept of humanitarian law and human rights law. History has not given him adequate credit for his foresight.