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A Three Front War : Heaven Is the Battleground

(Why Abdelkader Is Important)

by John Kiser 2016

While American forces focus on winning battles, our opponents will be focused on winning wars through the marriage of instability and initiative and projecting the smallest force at the quickest speed at the farthest place…a place that will not be of our choosing. The weapon with not be a club, but a stiletto. The goal is to instill fear. The enemy will have no center of gravity and will not draw strength from a source of military power. Radical Islam is not a Marxist line in the sand, but scattered entities: boys, gangs, militias, soldiers, clerics floating around an idea. [1]

The observations of Marine Colonel Stanton Coerr published eight years ago in the Marine Corps Gazette were certainly prescient. Updating his list of scattered entities, we can now add the self-radicalizing individual—the disturbed, angry, lone vigilante for the caliphate. Col Coerr does not reveal the idea because there is no one idea, but a confusing and continuously changing blend. The most animating is ultimately a spiritual one, misguided and distorted by the zeal of bitterness and hatred: To bring about the sovereignty of God to a supposedly godless, materialistic, vulgar, hyper individualistic, Westernizing world. It is a critique that echoes what is heard today on Christian radio stations and was implicit in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s shocking condemnation of our consumer bloated, narcissistic, Western culture in his 1978 Harvard commencement address. The cause is grand. Following the ISIS attacks in Paris, echoing Col Coerr, Pope Francis noted that WWIII has already begun, “even though piecemeal.” [2]

The struggle with militant Islamism has all the potential to become what extremists in both camps want—a global civilizational war. A fight to the death. Sounds crazy? Chinese literature uses the metaphor of the Lion vs the Flies. Mao Tse Tung started as a fly. Victory through a thousand bites. Yes, the Lion is bigger and stronger and has Technology, but the ISIS flies, more like wasps, are dispersed, agile, creative, hard to identify and fighting for a place in Paradise. Their power is the power of Faith, no matter how misguided. This is an enemy the secular-minded world is unprepared to fight. And the wasps can win. There are potentially 1. 5 billion to draw from if the Lion lets non life- threatening stings cause an over reaction that will simply bring on more angry wasps, while suspicion and paranoia tear at the home front.

The enemy battle plan is simple, and openly stated. The red meat- eating American cowboys will go berserk over painful and humiliating attacks either by self-starter lone wolves or thru organized sleeper cells. Civil liberties in the US are curtailed, a terrorist- hunting McCarthyism sets in, American Muslims become targets of more hatred, are kicked out of sensitive jobs and calls made to put them into camps. We destroy our own open culture and become a police state out of security paranoia, frustration, impatience and ignorance of what we are fighting and how to counter it. A quasi war footing puts the US still deeper into debt, the military industrial complex is delighted to peddle more expensive and ineffective technology to quell the never ending clouds of wasps. Decapitation of militant Islamist leaders provides a short-lived sense of accomplishment but simply produces new and often more dangerous leaders. This futile strategy is known in the military as “mowing grass”… which is no strategy.

Here at home, disenchanted and culturally alienated Americans, especially American Muslims who tire of being harassed and demonized start combining with young, angry black Americans and morph into the enemy within while interbreeding with the Mexican drug cartels to finance the war within. This scenario may be three to ten years out, assuming a succession of unwise foreign policy decisions and domestic hysteria fanned by our brilliant leaders… a combo of Vietnam Redux plus a Red Scare mentality. We would do well to imitate the British during the last hundred years of Irish insurgencies: Keep Calm and Carry on.

The US is facing a religio-political war on three interrelated fronts, one that must be contained by building deep intelligence cooperation and partnering with Muslims regardless of how they have been pre-labeled by American policy makers. Moreover, this is a civil war within the Muslim world in which they suffer far more than Americans or Europeans. It can only be won through education and patient, long term, low profile support of Muslim allies. It is their fight, first and foremost, as it is their religion that is being deformed.

Does the US and its secular European allies know how to fight a global irregular war without borders one in which the enemy has no center of gravity? The Caliphate may seem to be a center today, but destroying it will only produce harder to fight mini caliphates around the globe. Does the knee jerk desire for retribution serve as a useful policy guide in fighting an enemy that is neither understood nor visible until too late... an enemy that wins the minds of disconnected, discontented and unfulfilled youth across a broad spectrum: atheists, agnostics, middle class, Jews, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists as documented in 2014 research results on radicalization profiles among French youth conducted for the Center for the Prevention of Islamic Sectarianism. [3]

The Islamophobia Front.

The strategy of ideologically dedicated Western Islamophobes is to demonize Islam as a whole and reduce it to a cult of violence, an empire of dispersed evil. These are the mosque and Koran burners, the angry, confused assassins who shoot anyone who looks like a Muslim. They want Americans to believe that Islam is One Thing, the new Communism out to take over the world which, indeed, militant Islamists claim as their end game. The question is: Do US actions help make this alienated, apocalyptic strand of the Muslim world population get bigger or smaller? Islam demonizers in the West serve only to help the radical Islamists recruit. Their message is simple: The West is waging war on Islam. And so, a growing minority of Western Islam haters becomes a mirror of their counterparts in Muslim countries.

This front must focus long term on Islamic literacy education for the moveable middle of concerned but reasonable American citizens who care about civil rights, religious freedom and plain decency toward their fellow citizens. Americans who know Islam only through the media-- 99% of whom don’t actually know a Muslim-- are most affected by the steady drip of bloodshed in the name of Islam. There are many other expressions of Islam known to anyone who has spent time in Muslim countries or has a Muslim friend or two. But they are not in the news.

How address this fear of Islam from distorting sensible thinking? The hatred fomented against all German Americans in WWI and Japanese Americans in the last century is sad proof of what exaggerated fear can produce. Yet, Muslims leaders in America must also do their part and recognize there is an objective basis for fear of an enemy—whether from attacks in Orlando or Nice or Munich. In order to restrain the rising animus against all Muslims, American Muslims must reassure average Americans. They must publicly, unequivocally reject the unIslamic actions of ISIS through media attention-grabbing mass demonstrations around the country. And the press must make an effort to seek out stories that will paint pictures of the courageous, generous and civic-minded American Muslims who are the overwhelming majority in America, and the world. “If it bleeds it leads” is a media bias that can only feed the cycle of fear, while becoming PR agents for ISIS by giving them the front page attention their acts, or acts of influence, should not deserve.

Protecting the Home Front

Success in preventing attacks at home is inversely related to Islamophobia. Marine Brigadier General( Ret)Douglas Stone states the case simply: Islamophobia makes America less secure, especially when it infects policing. [4] Anti -Muslim prejudices cannot be allowed to interfere with local law enforcement agencies developing strong, trusting relations with their respective Muslim communities. In the past, FBI statistics show that the most important source of leads preventing plots from being carried out, or catching perpetrators, have come from Muslims themselves. Yet, FBI sting operations sow distrust in Muslims communities and can negate the trust created by local police departments.

Only religiously well-educated Muslims can enter the social media jungle to counter with superior knowledge the distortions used by radical Islamists who rely almost exclusively on one hundred and thirty two of the six thousand plus verses in the Koran. American Muslims must be cleared to enter into the spiritual combat in cyber space without becoming suspects themselves. Every Col Hassan, Tsarnov, Chattanooga, San Bernadino strengthens the hands of those in the US who want the civilizational war that former US Marine Commandant Conway warned against in 2008: “Western nations must ensure that this Long War does not evolve into a cultural war between Christians and Muslims. Extremists would like nothing better.” [5] Yet, we are inching faster in that direction today.

The extra territorial front . A heavy-handed and highly visible US presence in Muslim countries serves only to increase the flow of recruits while inviting more retaliation at home. Radical Islamists use age-old reasoning: the friend of my enemy is also my enemy. When the US sends troops to support Muslim governments that are themselves the reason for the radicalization, those governments become our Uncle Toms.

The war within Islam affects us… but American presence in Muslim countries also affects Muslims in ways much worse than anything America has experienced. We enter ignorant into complex realities that are constantly fractionating and morphing into something else which the natives themselves are hard-pressed to understand. Marine General Anthony Zinni said years ago that operating in the Muslim world is like Americans trying to discuss snow with the Eskimos [6]. Without being culturally nuanced, we don’t have a vocabulary to even talk about the many flavors of Islam. Making decisions based on preconceived ideas and bumper sticker labeling –democrat vs dictator, theocrat vs secular, moderate vs radical and outdated Cold War political alliances will likely cast us with the losing side of a struggle that has to be won by Muslims themselves. Nor should we have preconceived ideas as to what is the right outcome in this world that is not ours; indeed many are fighting precisely because they don’t want their world to be like ours.

In this generations-long struggle that is ahead--similar to England with the IRA but on a worldwide scale-- the most important weapons must be provided by Muslims themselves. These are educational tools, knowledge and role models that can influence young people. Doing my research in the 1990s for The Monks of Tibhirine, Faith Love and Terror in Algeria (2002) I learned that British intelligence monitored arguments between Algerian military officers and moudjahadeen over the correct interpretation of scripture. Knowledge of the Koran and the Sunna are the most powerful of all the weapons in this war that deploys competing versions of The Faith and their scholars of the Law.

Lessons from the Algerian Nightmare

In the 1990s, many observers in France feared that Algeria might become an Islamist State during the GIA’s (Group Islamique Armé) ISIS- like reign of terror. It was defeated. Like the more recent Arab Springs, there were many legitimate grievances fueling the Algerian insurgency that started simmering in the 1980s and exploded in the nineties. Yet the government prevailed. Why? I suggest four reasons that are relevant today as the US and other countries face this spreading contagion.

1) There were never foreign boots evident in Algeria. The so-called “apostate” military rulers were not contaminated by any visible presence of France or the US government that might have fanned internationally the call for jihad. The role of Western helping hands was not in the open.

2) Revulsion of the citizenry, especially the urban populations where the fearless moudjahadeen initially won many sympathizers among the youth. The original urban base of support for the terrorists disappeared. For many, the killing of the French Trappist monks in 1996 was the last straw, dividing even the terrorists. Ultimately, ordinary Algerians rejected the murderous violence committed in the name of Islam.

3) Effective Algerian counter terrorism ( terrorize the terrorists) tactics and infiltration of GIA emirates caused divisions and doubts about the righteousness of their cause. Theological knowledge became the ultimate weapon. Would heaven or hell be the ultimate destination of the terrorists? This matters for the committed Islamist warrior.

4) The role of knowledge and interpretation of the Koran became the ultimate battlefield. Respected conservative clerics in the Middle East finally spoke out after seeing Islam being befouled by GIA butchery. In 1999, on Algerian TV during Bouteflika’s Concord Civile, one of the repentis was asked why he laid down his arms. His answer: ”Because the Saudis told us.” Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz bin Baz openly condemned the GIA’s vigilante jihad, violence against civilians and issued fatwas that reached the maqis via cellphone. A year earlier, conservative Sheik Nacer-Eddine Albani’s deathbed fatwa condemning GIA behavior as unIslamic was particularly demoralizing. He was considered by salafi Islamists to be a conservative interpreter of the law, yet he believed that the only jihad worthy of the name is the jihad for knowledge.[7]

5) The Algerian government took a generally forgiving attitude toward terrorists who laid down their arms voluntarily, calling them “lost sheep” (les égarées), making it easier to reintegrate them into society. This is one reason why Algeria today has the lowest number of recruits of all the Arab nations joining ISIS, a mere two hundred, compared to six thousand from neighboring Tunisia. [8]

The war in which The United States and European nations are embroiled is a political war for the soul of Islam. Killing a certain percentage of the irreconcilable haters of Western cultures will be necessary. More important in determining the outcome of this struggle will be wise leadership in the West and close cooperation among Muslim and non Muslim allies, restraint, deep knowledge of The Book and finesse in dealing with a multifaceted, constantly morphing movement that has all the potential of a Chinese finger trap for the West.

Bombs can have short term benefits and make the various publics feel avenged. Yet, this is a long-term struggle whose weapons must include knowledge and alternative narratives of Islamic heroes, past and present. Every Muslim country has heroes who represent an open spirited, big tent Islam. They display love of knowledge, ethical courage, compassion, and the ability to dominate the destructive demons of hatred and revenge.

Abdelkader and Inclusive Islam

Emir Abdelkader, the Algerian ( al-Jazairy), is such a figure. There are many others. When he died in 1883 in Damascus, The New York Times hailed him as, “One of the few great men of the century.” He was admired from Missouri to Moscow to Mecca by heads of state, ordinary citizens, Muslims and Christians alike. A villages had been named in his honor in Iowa and Kansas, President Lincoln had praised him for saving Christian lives in Damascus, Ralph Waldo Emerson held him as a model of the spirit of reconciliation with former enemies, Queen Victoria named a rose after him, and Emir Shamil (the Abdelkader of the Caucacus) praised him as a true Muslim for protecting Christian lives.

Who then was Emir Abdelkader? Algerians sometimes call him their George Washington. At age twenty-five, he became the first Arab leader to organize tribes into a proto-Arab state to resist a French occupation that had began with the sack of Algiers in 1830, a western outpost of a decaying Ottoman Empire. Unlike General Washington, the political seedling Abdelkader created did not bear fruit until 132 years later when Algerians won independence from France.

The emir’s story is about struggle. He struggled against French invaders and Arab tribes that rejected his leadership. He struggled with betrayal, humiliation and depression in France, and finally, struggled to educate Muslims by his example, especially by his openness toward others, and not allowing despair, bitterness or revenge to dominate his spirit.

Abd el-Kader means “Servant of God,” a challenging name for anyone to bear. Yet, he came as close as any human might to fulfilling his implied calling. Following his rescue of Christians in Damascus during the politically inspired pogrom of 1860, Abdelkader received a letter of gratitude from the French Bishop Pavy in Algiers. The emir wrote back: “That which we did for the Christians, we did to be faithful to Islamic Law, and out of respect for human rights…. The law places greatest importance on compassion and mercy and all that preserves social cohesion.” Abdelkader then ended his letter with an observation that is painfully obvious today: “Those who belong to the religion of Mohammad have corrupted it, which is why they are now like lost sheep.”

An Arab warrior, a Muslim of deep, informed faith, Abdelkader inspired the lives of others with his physical endurance and moral courage, his wide learning and spiritual depth, capped by his ability to empathize and forgive. From where did these traits come? There were many influences:

  • The traditions and teachings of the 11th century saint Abdelkader al-Jilani that inspired his Kaderiyya Sufi tradition. Al-Jilani taught that Muslims had a duty to pray for the well-being of all people and to hold a place of special respect for Jesus Christ. In this tradition, Jesus is set apart from other prophets by his power of love.

  • The teachings and influence of his parents that emphasized the continuous pursuit of knowledge, purity of heart, patience and contempt of material riches.

  • His mother who taught that ritual purity is only half the faith, a reminder of the harder half—to purify one’s inner self. To be a true servant of God, one must be free of egotistical desires and violent passions of hatred, anger and revenge.

  • His scholarly father who taught him the complexities of interpreting God’s word, the importance of context, the different levels of understanding and different forms of behavior that are also righteous.

  • His life as a Bedouin hunter and horseman, which taught patience, endurance, courage and warrior skills.

  • Sincere piety and strong moral compass rooted in the teachings of all the prophets (Torah, Psalms, Gospels, Koran).

  • A broad education that included, in addition to the Law, math, history, astronomy, Greek philosophy, plant pharmacology, art of rhetoric and recitation of the Koran.

  • His exposure to the larger world, thanks to his father who took him on a haj at age twenty-four that took him to Tunis, Cairo, Damascus and exposure to the world’s diversity.


Abdelkader believed the pursuit of knowledge to be the highest good and the ultimate purpose in life. He distinguished, however, between knowledge of worldly things, which he likened to pools of rainwater that come and go, and knowledge of the divine within, which is an everlasting spring. For him, the most important form of knowledge is political knowledge because it affects how people live together. Man is a social animal and no knowledge is more important than that needed for living in community and guiding human behavior justly. But justice requires access to higher wisdom transmitted via the prophets who are vessels for mediating God’s wisdom. Nor is there any contradiction between the different prophets. They all subscribe to the fundamental moral rule: Be just. All have a common message---glorify God and show compassion for His creatures.

Three elements of his character make Abdelkader a worthy heroic role model in today’s diverse and shrinking world:

He was “local” and “universal” at the same time. He was deeply and authentically Muslim. He had no identity crisis, yet he also grew spiritually, especially during French imprisonment, when he experienced the goodness of Christians and non-believers alike. Religion wasn’t a safety belt holding his identity together, but a platform for probing the meaning of God’s creation. His religious identity made him bigger, not smaller. The plurality of beliefs was simply a reflection of the infinite nature of God and the inexhaustible ways to praise God.

Second, he saw no conflict between politics, religion and science. Politics should be governed by a desire to lead people to live together in harmony, religion should provide a common moral base of shared values and common origin, and science will teach us to grasp the basic unity of mankind. Last, Abdelkader’s life was guided by his sense of obedience to Divine Law, combining knowledge and virtue. His virtues were those enumerated in the Christian world by Aquinas as The Cardinal Virtues: wisdom, moral courage, justice and self restraint. Without cultivating these qualities in our youth and in our leaders, there will be little moral progress in the world.

Muslims throughout the world today are struggling for the soul of their faith. The Islam that was once on the forefront of intellectual achievement in the world was, like the emir, an Islam that sought knowledge and understanding wherever it could be found. There was no such thing as a pure Islam which some Islamists today seek, just as there is no pure Christianity. The struggle today is over role models for young Muslims…. and for that matter, youth everywhere.


Kaderiyyan Islam has historic roots in Iran and adherents today in Chechniya, Dagestan, Afghanistan as well as growing numbers of admirers in Pakistan and Indian Kashmir. Kaderian Islam abhors sectarian and human divisions. It views all creation as God's work and all religion as founded on two pillars: love of God and compassion towards his creatures. A Kaderiyyan movement has the potential to heal divisions within Islam and within the human community. Its spirit is universal and can be found in the lives of Leo Tolstoy, Mohatmed Gandhi, Ghaffar Khan, Nelson Mandela, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King and all the millions of lesser known, anonymous people for whom there is only one race---the Human Race.

John W Kiser is author of Commander of the Faithful: Life and Times of Emir Abdelkader ( 2008); Adjunct instructor, Marine Corps University; Chairman of William and Mary Greve Foundation


[1] “Fifth Generation Warfare,” Lt Col Stanton Coerr, Marine Corps Gazette, 1/09

[2] Pope Francis made this widely quoted statement following the terrorist attack in Paris on Nov 2015 at a commemoration ceremony of WWII Italian war dead.

[3] Recherche –Action sur la Mutation du Processus d’Endoctrinement et Embrigadement dans l’Islam Radicale by Dounia Bouzar, Christophe Caupenne, Sulayman Valsan

[4] Religion Terror and Error ( US foreign policy and the challenge of spiritual engagement), by Douglas Johnston, Praeger 2011, pp 152-57

[5] ”Know the Enemy?” Lt Col Glen Butler, Marine Corps Gazette, 8/08

[6] Gen Zinni talk given 2008, in Washington DC for the Committee to Save the Republic.

[7] ibid, Religion, Terror and Error

[8] “Has Algeria Taken Anti Vaccine,” Jenny Gustavson