Muslims on Main Street

How a small town in America’s heartland fell in love with an Islamic revolutionary—twice


| July-August 2010


In 1979 the United States discovered the Muslim world. It was a tumultuous year for that sociologically suspect entity—between the fall of the shah of Iran in January and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, there was the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, the taking of American hostages in Tehran, and the siege of Mecca by radical Islamists. Even as “Hey Iran” bumper stickers, featuring an obscene Mickey Mouse, were appearing on station wagons across the country, a cultural diplomat at the United States Information Agency (USIA) in Washington, D.C., rang up the editor of the Clayton County Register, the weekly newspaper in the town of Elkader, Iowa (population 1,600), inquiring how the town got its name.

Elkader had been named after Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri, a leader of the Algerian resistance to France in the 19th century, and the paper’s editor, Donna Menken, wrote a story about it for Al Majal, the USIA’s Arabic-language magazine. Al Majal was an organ of American soft power, and Elkader was great copy, a perfect talking point for American diplomats confronting a surge in anti-American sentiment: a small town in the heartland of America, in love with an Islamic revolutionary. The Muslim world and Main Street USA weren’t so far apart after all.

The story in Al Majal mostly provided fodder for teatime conversations among diplomats and clerics. But a copy of the issue also sat in the library of the U.S. Embassy in Algiers, where an Algerian staffer, a native of Mascara—Abd al-Qadir’s hometown—read the story. In 1983 he made a journey to the little Iowa town, and the following year Elkader and Mascara officially became sister cities. Although it was unclear just what this quasi-political relationship entailed, it certainly provided an exciting vacation for Mayor Ed Olson, who led a 10-person delegation from Elkader to Mascara for the signing ceremony. It also provided his political rival in the next mayoral election with a ready-made rallying cry: “Get rid of Ed Olson and all his Algerian friends!” Olson lost, and the Iowa-Algeria sorority languished.

Yet Elkader was becoming a destination for Algerians in the United States. In 1990 Idriss Jazairi, Abd al-Qadir’s great-great-grandson, made a pilgrimage of sorts, and in 1996 more than 400 Algerian Americans descended on the town for its annual Sweet Corn Parade in July. By the late 1990s certain members of the Elkader Area Chamber of Commerce had begun to realize that the town’s almost whimsical identification with Algeria could lend it a brand identity, whether the townies were on board or not.

Which is how, for the second time in 150 years, a small Midwestern town hitched its economic wagon to the legacy of a self-confessed jihadist—on the eve of America’s “war on terror,” no less.