Iowa Town Named for Muslim Hero Extols Tolerance
ELKADER, Iowa — Amid an expanse of undulating farmland, deep in the steep valley carved by the Turkey River, the town of Elkader sits most of the year in remote obscurity. Population 1,200 and gradually shrinking, it is the seat of a county without a single traffic light.
Improbably enough, this community settled by Germans and Scandinavians, its religious life built around Catholic and Lutheran churches, bears the name of a Muslim hero. Abd el-Kader was renowned in the 19th century for leading Algeria’s fight for independence and protecting non-Muslims from persecution. Even Abraham Lincoln extolled him.
This weekend, for the fifth year in a row, Elkader will welcome a delegation of Arab dignitaries to celebrate this rare lifeline of tolerance, spanning continents and centuries. Coming less than three weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, which the authorities say were committed by two Muslim brothers, the Abdelkader Education Project’s forum stands more than ever for an affirming encounter between the United States and Islam.
Our audience is the people who are compassionate already,” said Kathy Garms, 63, a retired human-resources administrator who is the driving force in the Abdelkader project. “But there are so many people who are ignorant or scared or even hateful. We just hope that once they get across the starting line, they will listen.”
Abdallah Baali, Algeria’s ambassador to the United States and an annual participant in the forum, put its impact in global terms. “In our increasingly tormented world,” the ambassador wrote in an e-mail, “Abd el-Kader — a true world hero — is ‘talking’ today to a much broader audience about our shared values and on how humanity could and can prevail over all differences and prejudices.”
The saga began in 1845, when a land developer, Timothy Davis, scouted a site along the Turkey River for a flour mill and settlement. Davis had read of Abd el-Kader’s fight against the French for Algerian independence, which was covered by American newspapers sympathetic to the revolt against colonial rule. So Davis named his new town for the emir.
Over the decades, the profundity of Elkader’s provenance gave way to a kind of exotica — a local college called its student newspaper The Arab Chieftain — and ultimately was all but forgotten. Then, in the mid-1980s, an Algerian liaison at the American Embassy there chanced upon the fact that a town in Iowa had been named for Kader. And that liaison, Benaoumer Zergaoui, hailed from Kader’s birthplace, Mascara.
Through the efforts of Mr. Zergaoui and Elkader’s mayor at the time, Edward W. Olson, Mascara and Elkader established a sister-city relationship in 1984. That endeavor died out in the early 1990s, however, as Algeria descended into a dozen years of civil war between the government and Islamist militants. By the time stability had returned to Algeria, Elkader and the rest of America was living in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Eventually, Algeria’s government reached out to Elkader’s new mayor in 2008. He turned down the opportunity to visit, but the invitation found its way to Kathy Garms, a volunteer in the local history museum. An accidental diplomat, Ms. Garms had been born and reared in Elkader, the daughter of a logger and a secretary. As a young woman, her world extended no wider than San Angelo, Tex., where she had represented Iowa in the Miss Wool beauty pageant.
In middle age by this time, and having seen a bit of the world as a military wife, Ms. Garms seized upon the Algerian offer. With her husband, she traveled there to meet with government leaders, visit Kader’s grave, and attend a conference run by a humanitarian foundation.
Two weeks after she returned to Iowa, the Turkey River flooded, destroying about 30 homes and causing $8 million in property damage. Ms. Garms picked up her phone one day to field an inquiry from the Algerian government about how to wire-transfer some money for disaster relief. A couple of hundred dollars, she figured, how sweet. It turned out to be $150,000.
Serendipity made its next appearance in November 2008 in the form of John W. Kiser, a Virginia author. He had just published a biography of Kader, “Commander of the Faithful,” and wanted to hold a book-launch event in the namesake town. Between them, Ms. Garms and Mr. Kiser brainstormed the idea of starting an essay contest for local high school students and holding a forum to renew interest in Kader.
“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.”
By now, as the forum prepares for its fifth year, Elkader displays historical artifacts about Algeria and Kader in both City Hall and the history museum. A local restaurant serves Algerian cuisine. Matched sets of poles with the word for peace written in English, French, and Arabic, stand in Elkader and Mascara. This weekend’s visitors will include a prominent Egyptian Islamic artist, Ahmed Moustafa, and a film crew from Al Jazeera. Everyone will dine on Iowa beef at Fennellys’ Irish Pub.
Not that everything has been easy. One of Kader’s descendants, who was supposed to come from Dubai for the forum, canceled his trip after the Boston bombing. Bob Spielbauer, an Elkader native who won the essay contest in 2011, recently heard his college classmates trotting out the Muslim-terrorist stereotype.
“It felt personal,” he said. “I felt like they were attacking me. Because the project helped open my eyes. It helped give me a positive opinion of Muslims. It was like filling in a blank.”
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