Emir Abdelkader was born the son of a respected military leader who had helped harass French occupiers in Algeria. As might be expected, young Emir continued his father’s war against the French in a conflict that had religious overtones since, you know, the Algerians were mostly Muslim and the French predominantly Christian. But when he rode forth to save Christians from angry mobs in 1860, France conferred on him its top military honors, the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor.
Emir Abdelkader as a military leader in the late 1830s.
Abdelkader’s military career started about how you would expect with his taking over his father’s war against the predominantly Christian French military. But where his father ran campaigns of harassment against the French, the younger Emir quickly capitalized on some of his father’s successes and managed to negotiate a treaty with France that gave him the interior of Oran. Oran is a coastal area of Algeria.
Further successes on the battlefield and in negotiations gave him control of more land and pushed most French forces back to a few ports. His success on the battlefield in service of Algerian independence led to him being dubbed the “George Washington of Algeria.”
And one thing that made these successes even more impressive is that he succeeded while strictly adhering to Islamic rules for combat. He wouldn’t kill women, children, or the wounded. He demanded proper treatment of prisoners, dead bodies, and Christian leaders, including priests. He even employed Christians and Jews in his administration and refused to force Islam on prisoners or conquered subjects.
This obviously frustrated colonial French efforts to undermine his popular appeal. (In fact, some modern Muslims have used his story and legacy to shame members of Daesh and show how Muslims are supposed to fight according to the Quran.)
But Abdelkader was unable to defeat the larger and better equipped French military forever. A renewed French campaign in 1840 slowly ground down Abdelkader and his supporters and, in 1847, he surrendered to a French general and the duc d’Aumale, the French king’s son.
But his story was not over. He was a prolific writer and was widely respected in the region and across the world. So, when political violence erupted into a summer civil war in 1860, Abdelkader’s calls for calm incited some popular support for peace.
A statue of Emir Abdelkader in Algeria.
(Mouh2jijel, CC BY-SA 3.0)
But the violence did continue and spilled into Damascus, now the capital of Syria. Abdelkader rode forth with his guard and supporters and personally rounded up Christians and took them back to his compound where he and his men guarded them. He put a bounty out for the safe delivery of any Christians to him and his men. And, he sent guards to escort local Christian leaders and officials back to safety.
His efforts were credited at the time with saving thousands, and he had hundreds of Christians at a time sheltered under his protection.
So France, now under the control of Napoleon III who was broadly friendly to his empire’s old foe, awarded Abdelkader the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor. The 1860 Mount Lebanon Civil War lasted less than three months, but an estimated 20,000 Christians were killed.
Abdelkader lived until 1883 and was toasted by leaders from America to Europe to the Middle East for his religious tolerance.