WHERE IS HOPE in our search for peace?
Here’s a terrific series of stories about two American high school students from a small town in Iowa who are inspiring readers far and wide with the wisdom of—a long-forgotten Muslim hero who lived in lands far away:
1.) Stephannie wins the essay contest with this wisdom.
2.) Stephannie offers a poem and prayer for peace.
3.) Rebecca writes on how students’ lives can be shaped.
4.) The Peace X Peace international women’s network plans to publish excerpts of their essays, too. The article isn’t up on Peace X Peace’s site just yet, but this link will reach that story when it appears.
5.) And here’s an interview with historian John W. Kiser, whose book about Emir Abd el-Kader touched off this whole revival of his life story.
WHAT PROMPTED these young people to speak out? Historian John Kiser ignited this particular spark. We’ve already told you about Kiser and his book, “Commander of the Faithful,” here at ReadTheSpirit. While researching this story of a 19th-century Muslim hero, Emir Abd el-Kader, Kiser discovered that the emir’s popularity once extended all the way to rural Iowa where settlers from the East Coast decided to call their new town Elkader.
Young people represent our future, so Kiser invited the current students at Elkader’s Central Community High School to kick off an annual essay contest focusing on the timeless relevance of this 19th-century hero.
Kiser circles the world in his work as a writer, but he really wanted to shine a big spotlight on the importance of grassroots American voices. So, he flew to Iowa and drove to Elkader himself for its annual, end-of-the-year, student-awards program. A representative of the Algerian Embassy, Fatima Remili, journeyed to Iowa as well.
This international entourage honored two students: Stephannie Fox-Dixon, who wrote the winning essay, “A Servant of God,” and Rebecca Roberts, who was runner up with, “Elkader Is an Odd Name for a Little Town.”
Today, we’re going to help Kiser and Remili further amplify the importance of looking for fresh, young voices—even in unlikely corners of America—to inspire us all.
At ReadTheSpirit, we’re proud to salute Stephannie and Rebecca as well. Today, we’re publishing Stephannie’s winning essay. On Thursday, you’ll hear from Rebecca. HERE IS …
A SERVANT OF GOD
By Stephannie Fox-Dixon
“Don’t ask about a man’s genealogy, but about his character, his life and his deeds. Drink the water. If it is pure, so is the source.”
Muhi al Din, father of Abd el-Kader
GROWING UP in a town with distinctive history is a truly unique experience. The experiences and culture of a small town helped shape me to become who I am today, a tolerant and determined individual. Before reading “Commander of the Faithful, The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader” by John W. Kiser, I didn’t understand why a predominately German and Norwegian town like Elkader, Iowa, would have such a dissimilar name. I soon discovered that through New York attorney and Iowa pioneer Timothy Davis, Emir Abd-el Kader gave our quaint and charming town a piece of unique history.
Davis, along with Abd el-Kader, was a man of great character—with strong morals, an excellent education, and an open mind. He and two of his comrades acquired land next to the Turkey River so they could build a mill. Davis had been following international news and had learned much about Emir Abd el-Kader and his resistance to the French incursion of Algeria. When given the opportunity to name their new settlement in 1846, Davis admiringly dubbed it “Elkader.”
Given the name meaning “a servant of God,” Abd el-Kader truly lived and breathed the words “humanity” and “character” during the French colonization of Algeria in 1830. Abd el-Kader was born in northern Algeria in 1808 to a well-educated mother, Zohra, and a religiously trained sheik father by the name of Muhi al Din. By the age of eight, Abd el-Kader had memorized the Quran and already had acquired an education that exceeded that of most of his tribesmen. Around the age of 13, his father led him on a two-year pilgrimage to the capitals and cities of other countries, such as Mecca, Damascus, and Cairo. These travels expanded Abd el-Kader’s interest in religion and diverse thought. The French invaded shortly following their return.
“Commander of the Faithful” is a biography about one very gifted man’s desire to study and live God’s message while defending his beliefs. El-Kader—one of the 99 Islamic names for God—was an appropriate name for this disciple of deep religious faith. Faith was not all that defined Abd el-Kader, however—so did his exemplary character.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” Examples of a strong sense of character are people who try to make a difference while using their intuition, people who try their hardest at whatever they do and who see the true character in others, not just a person’s status or religion. Defending his homeland meant a great deal to Abd el-Kader, but so did basic human rights. While the opposition was wiping out entire tribes and regarding severed heads as “trophies of war,” the Emir reacted not with violence and hostility but with composure.
I perceive humanity with a view that everyone has the power to strengthen his or her character. As a person grows, their character develops with them. Such humanity has the power to inspire other people. Abd el-Kader had a strong sense of character and since learning about his life I now regard Abd el-Kader as one of the forefathers of some of the world’s greatest nationalists and humanitarians such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Emir employed faith as their rock when upholding their causes. All of their visions were very much the same—to instigate change in the most peaceful, respectful way possible.
Concentration-camp survivor Elie Wiesel stated, “Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free.” People are treated horribly every day because of their race, gender, ethnic, and/or religious beliefs.
Abd el-Kader helped revolutionize civil rights worldwide. We need strong-minded people like Abd el-Kader and Elie Wiesel, who speak for the cruelly mistreated.
Also, Susan B. Anthony, who started the movement for women’s rights, and Martin Luther King Jr., who kept up his efforts for civil rights—even when it seemed like there was little hope.
Mahatma Gandhi and Abd el-Kader were both compassionate philosophers. What I have discovered is that the Emir’s compassion towards his adversaries is typical of Gandhi’s principles for Satyagraha. Gandhi taught that the way a person behaves is more important than what he achieves.
Abd el-Kader was very much in tune with his country and surrounding world. Living on a large planet, he chose to serve what portion of it he could. Today, we are all much “closer together” in a sense. Technology has expanded our world to the far corners of the earth: We can order clothes from a store in San Francisco in mere minutes, fly to Florence, Italy for the weekend, and become best friends with an exchange student from Calcutta, India.
Another person in tune with his country and the surrounding globe is the current president of the United States. While probably not a prophet or a seer, Barack Obama is a caring and compassionate human being with extraordinary character. He also has a unique history similar to the Emir. Some of these characteristics include his being born to highly educated parents—education helped shape Obama’s personality. He was also given the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world. Abd el-Kader used the techniques of his time in order to connect with different parts of the globe—throughout Obama’s campaign he used the Internet as a tool to gain support.
One can approach the issues of the world like an architect: with a creative flair, the ability to promote one’s idea’s passionately, high organizational skills, patience, perseverance, and knowledge of the “industry’s” latest trends, technologies, and techniques.
No one else’s character can aid you better than your own can. Abd el-Kader’s character is what stood out to me as a relevant and helpful guide to living my own life. He stood up for what he believed was just and right and spoke up when others didn’t.
I have always wanted to have a positive influence on the world, and I see education as a key to help me do that. Some of the best leaders were well educated. I understand, though, that being erudite helps get a point across, but it is not all that makes a leader. Think of character as a house: first comes the foundation, which is education. Next comes conviction, which composes the walls—the composition of the soul. After the walls comes the roof, representative of history—defender of the future. Subsequently placed are the windows, or dreams—what the soul wishes to accomplish. Following the placement of the windows comes the door, which represents the allowance of past inspiration to reach the soul. Finally, the house is ready to be furnished and lived in. This represents the uniqueness that each and every soul encompasses.
I intend to take this metaphor and the knowledge I have learned about Abd el-Kader with me to college, where I plan to acquire a degree with an emphasis in architecture/design and international relations. Learning more about the world we live in will help me to assist it in the future.
THANK YOU John Kiser and the Students and Staff of Central Community High School! (Plus, a special thanks to Kathy Garms, Kiser Project Coordinator, who helped to facilitate this publication.)
ABOUT TODAY’S PHOTOS: The top photo shows Stephanie Fox-Dixon (at left) with Kiser and Rebecca Roberts in Elkader on awards night recently. We’ve also included photos of the emir and the book cover. The last photo shows Fox-Dixon with Algerian Embassy Cultural Affairs Counselor Fatima Remili.
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