Kathy Garms (right) looks at an old dress that she wore in a play at the Opera House in Elkader, Iowa, May 2, 2013. Garms is the driving force behind the Abdelkader Education Project.

THERE is a small town in Clayton County, Iowa in the United States, which is called Elkader. It has typical Iowa weather, warm to hot in the summer and very cold in winter.

The 2016 United States Census Bureau estimates the town has 1, 213 residents. The town itself is a pleasant place and according to a report from The New York Times in 2013, “it is the seat of a county without a single traffic light”.

Many towns in the US have sister cities and for Elkader, Iowa, its sister city is — of all places — the town of Mascara in Algeria which has150,000 residents. The sister city relationship was established in 1984. What is it about this small town that is of interest to those of us concerned with education and why on earth would its sister city be in Algeria?

The town Elkader is named after the famous Algerian resistance fighter and leader Emir Abd el-Kader who fought the French colonialists in Algeria for nearly two decades.

In 1845 Timothy Davis decided to name the site of the town after the Algerian freedom fighter who had inspired him. Mascara in Algeria is Abd el-Kader’s birthplace.

In fact Emir Abd el-Kader had inspired many people around the world including Abraham Lincoln who was so impressed by him that he gave him a pair of colt pistols! Abd el-Kader is referred to as “the George Washington of Algeria” and his impact and example as a warrior statesman and heroic figure certainly warrants the comparison.

According to Ahmed Bouyerdene, who wrote the book Emir Abd el-Kader: Hero and Saint of Islam: “Starting from almost nothing, without experience, within the space of a few years, the Emir Abd el-Kader developed a military organisation and established the basis of a fledgling State. For more than 15 years he held off the foremost army in the world and was able to impose two peace treaties allowing him to consolidate his administration. His refusal to compromise, his strength of soul in the face of setbacks, his magnanimity, aroused a current of sympathy in the very ranks of his adversaries. Already at that time, numerous testimonies emphasised the paradoxical character of the personage, at once warrior and saint: the Emir had chosen to nourish his political action by continual meditation.”

I was recently reminded of Elkader and Emir Abd el-Kader by a recent article by Robert Fisk in the Independent. His article is titled We Must Look to the Past, not Isis, For the True Meaning of Islam. In his article, Fisk provides an impassioned discussion of Emir Abd el-Kader and his virtues.

In keeping with this sentiment, I would like to draw reader’s attention to another side of his legacy: the contemporary work of the Abd El-Kader Education Project which is based in Elkader, Iowa.

Spurred by the launch in Elkader in 2008 of John W. Kiser’s biography Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abdelkader, a local essay contest soon grew and evolved into the Abdelkader Education Project.

The project hosts an essay contest and scholarship awards which are available to “students enrolled at US high schools and colleges/universities, including exchange students”. In a New York Times article on Elkader, its famous namesake and the Abdelkader Education Project,Kiser was quoted: “Our point,” Mr. Kiser said in a recent interview, “is to inject into the educational bloodstream another view of Islam. We need to balance the narratives that are constantly coming through the media. Fear and ignorance are a deadly combination.”

For educators looking for examples to emulate and present to their students of leaders who represent the best and most heroic examples of proper action, Abd El-Kader stands out.

For those of us wondering what can be done to address the ignorance and bigotry that currently pollutes and distorts how we view each other across the religious divide, then look at the persistent and noble work of those who have established the Abdelkader Education Project and furthermore those who sought to recognise and celebrate the history of Elkader and Abd el-Kader through establishing a sister city relationship with Mascara and all the good work that has flowed from that.

Often it is in the work of people in small places whose persistence and effort is not known as much as it ought to be that provides examples for us as educators. The spirit and example of Abd El-Kader is of global importance and, in today’s world, an even more important resource for educators. In that spirit, I will leave the last words of this article to the class of 1915 Elkader High School:

“Such is the history of the man for whom our town is named. A scholar, a philosopher, a lover of liberty; a champion of his religion, a born leader of men, a great soldier, a capable administrator, a persuasive orator, a chivalrous opponent; the selection was well made, and with those pioneers of 70 years ago, we do honour the Shaykh.”

The writer is a lecturer in Education in Australia. Email him at jamesca@deakin.edu.au

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