Muslims on Main Street

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Kyle T. Webster /

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.

Elkader, Iowa, was founded in 1846 during a golden age of real estate speculation, and it’s likely that the name was chosen, even then, for its market appeal. John O’Sullivan, a politician and journalist who coined the phrase “manifest destiny,” had just provided North American land speculators with what would become their most effective sales pitch, linking westward expansion to the battle against “the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs.” The town fathers of Elkader played on this theme–Abd al-Qadir was even then leading a guerrilla war against the forces of the French monarchy, which had captured Algiers in 1830. By the same token, the name Elkader, with its vague Arabesque exoticism, distinguished the town in a field crowded with biblical allusions, Indian rebels, and wartime heroes.

More has come to hang on that Algerian connection than its founders could ever have imagined. The farm crisis of the 1980s decimated old farm towns like Elkader. Today, though agribusiness remains a large employer in Iowa, it represents a small portion of the state’s gross product. One of the few growing economic sectors is the heritage and ecotourist market in the northeast of the state. Elkader is part of the Driftless Area, a 24,000-square-mile expanse of topographically variegated terrain that has emerged as a regional destination for summer travel.

In Elkader, the most visible signs of redevelopment are the renovated opera house and Schera’s, a North African restaurant operated by a gay couple recently relocated from Boston. Frederique Boudouani, one of the proprietors of Schera’s, is the son of Algerian and French parents; his partner grew up in nearby New Hampton, Iowa. Elkader’s multicultural heritage has become an  advantage in the regional tourism industry. When the Algerian Embassy contacted local officials in 2007 about reactivating the sister-cities program, Elkader was ready to listen.

The Abd al-Qadir embraced by Iowans–the gallant defender of other religions–is a caricature of the historical figure but not a wholesale invention. Even during his jihad against the French, Abd al-Qadir was noted for his liberal attitudes toward Christian prisoners. Yet in trussing him up for local consumption, Elkader has shoved the broader doctrinal basis for his beliefs into a narrowly secularist frame that resonates with the politics of postwar liberal internationalism. In the words of a student essayist from Elkader Central Community School, Abd al-Qadir was the forerunner of Susan B. Anthony, Elie Wiesel, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama, in that he “helped revolutionize civil rights worldwide.”

On the one hand, this presents Abd al-Qadir as if his respect for other religions is at odds with his faith as a Muslim, as if respect for other religious traditions was not a bedrock of Islam. On the other hand, this rendering strips his beliefs of all social and political context. The Elkader sister-cities website highlights his protection of Christians during the 1861 uprising in Ottoman Damascus, yet it fails to underline the extent to which Abd al-Qadir’s actions were those of an Arab nationalist, committed to a politics of anticolonial solidarity.

Elkader’s rebranding of Abd al-Qadir is rich with precedent. Since the start of the revolt in 1830, much of what has been written about Abd al-Qadir has been pure propaganda. Like many a latter-day Arab potentate–Saddam Hussein springs to mind–Abd al-Qadir has been celebrated and demonized in accordance with Western whims and ambitions. He appeared as the bin Laden of his age, a devil sent to plague the French, yet after the overthrow of the July Monarchy and the rise of Louis Bonaparte, Abd al-Qadir was made over as a liberator. Bonaparte hoped to realize his greater Mediterranean empire, uniting Arabs from North Africa to the Eastern Mediterranean in a French protectorate under Abd al-Qadir’s leadership. While the end of the Second Empire spelled the death of this project, Abd al-Qadir went on to enjoy international respectability.

This Abd al-Qadir is, not coincidentally, the same character that Algeria would like the world to know. In the wake of the Algerian civil war (1991-2002), many Algerian intellectuals argued that the war was brought on by the failure of the nationalist project. The recovery of Abd al-Qadir as a national hero has proceeded as part of a general “reeducation” in the history of Algeria, one that idealizes the national past as a way of articulating present political crises–and creating a safe space for economic development.

And so–just as Algeria has been used to promote Elkader, Iowa–Elkader, Iowa, has been used to promote Algeria. In speeches, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has underlined the importance of Abd al-Qadir by celebrating his tolerance and generosity; stories highlighting the relationship between Elkader and Mascara appear in Algerian newspapers. When Ed Olson, the Elkader mayor whose “Algerian friends” cost him his reelection, died in August 2009, the story was national news in Algeria, as was a visit the previous year by the president of the Elkader Sister Cities Friendship Club, Kathy Garms, to attend a conference on Abd al-Qadir’s legacy.

The Elkader connection seems to have increased awareness, among contemporary Algerians, of the historical al-Qadir. Whether that, in turn, might translate to a more distinctly Algerian identity is difficult to ascertain. Ironically–or not–Algeria’s promotion of Abd al-Qadir echoes one of the U.S. State Department’s more recent initiatives, promoting Sufism as an alternative to political Islam. A Sufi cleric in his lifetime, Abd al-Qadir represents the ideal that both projects seek to realize, a sense of Islamic spirituality divorced from the immediacies of the material world.

For its participation in this strange geopolitical parlor game, Elkader has been awarded an unprecedented level of access to foreign officials, as well as players at the highest levels of the global economy. When Garms visited Algeria in May 2008, she met with an array of government ministers, as well as officials from the Arab League and the U.S.-Algeria Business Council, a veritable who’s who of global capital. The U.S.-ABC is considering contracting with Elkader’s long-underused Caterpillar tractor plant to produce a fleet of earthmovers to remake the small Algerian town of Hassi Messaoud into a North African Abu Dhabi–a move that could herald Elkader’s industrial revival.

For the moment, the benefits that might come from these relationships remain largely speculative. Yet, in at least one way, the rapport between Elkader and Algeria has paid off. Shortly after Kathy Garms returned home from her Algerian visit, flooding along the Turkey River devastated parts of Elkader. Algeria immediately offered to help, donating $150,000 to relief efforts. The gift was presented, formally, by the Algerian ambassador to the United States, Amine Kherbi, at the Elkader Opera House on July 5, 2008. Timed to coincide with the 46th anniversary of Algerian independence, the ceremony opened with a line of Boy Scouts, marching to the stirring strains of the Algerian national anthem, hoisting the star and crescent of the Algerian flag.

Adam John Waterman is the 2010-11 Fulbright Scholar in Algeria. To find out more about Elkader, Algeria, and Abd al-Qadir, read his blog at Excerpted from Bidoun (Spring 2010), which covers Middle Eastern arts and culture with intelligence, flair, and

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