News & Politics

In Elkader, Iowa

Elkader, Iowa is the only town in the U.S. named after an Islamic revolutionary. It is also a place where relations between Arab-Americans and non-Arab-Americans have remained amazingly strong.
ELKADER, IOWA -- Nestled among the blue herons in the Turkey River Valley in northeastern Iowa, this hamlet couldn't be farther from the deserts of Islamic Algeria. Snow flurries darken the last days of autumn; the maple trees have lost their leaves. American flags adorn a vibrant main street.

But with 1,500 souls, Elkader's tidy burg of Victorian houses and brick churches holds the distinction of being the only town in the United States named after an Islamic revolutionary. And it takes seriously its role as a model town for world diplomacy.

"Abd-el-Kader was the George Washington of Algeria," Betty Walch tells visitors at the Carter House Museum. Walch stood recently in front of a display case of El-Kader memorabilia and portraits. An Algerian wool rug, sheared from a shipment of Iowa sheep sent to Algeria by a cadre of Girl Scouts, hangs on the wall.

"I was walking by here the other day and saw this, and who does it look like?" Walch said during a tour, picking up a black and white portrait. "Osama bin Laden," she answered, "and I thought, 'Oh my God, what are we doing with this picture here?' But that is Abd-el-Kader."

The legendary hero of Algeria's resistance against France, Abd-el-Kader led a jihad against the Western power in the 1830s. He managed to unite the various Arab and Berber clans in a devastating war until 1847. Several months before El-Kader's surrender to Louis Napoleon's France, the Iowa town founders chose the world newspaper darling of the moment as their municipality's namesake.

"I don't think we'll brag about it now," Walch said, in light of the Sept. 11 tragedy, "but that was a long time ago."

One visitor recently complained about the Algerian display, saying it was inappropriate. Ed Olson, the former town mayor, disagreed.

"Small town folks are more worldly than we often think," Olson said, pointing at another collection of Algerian souvenirs at the local Opera House. He headed up the town's Sister City project with Mascara, Algeria in 1984, leading nine other council members on their first visit to the North African country.

"As part of the Sister City's philosophy," Olson said, "we should cross borders in friendship, not war."

On their visit, the Americans heard about Algeria's own struggle with fundamentalist extremists. They dined on Algerian cuisine and visited the nation's landmarks. In a moving ceremony outside Mascara, they planted trees at a monument to El-Kader. For the rural Iowans, most from northern European immigrant backgrounds, it was an "unforgettable experience."

"Just as we had preconceived notions of their society, and Islam," Olson said, "they had built their image of America around the movies. They thought our country was full of mobsters."

When a Mascara delegation arrived in Elkader the next year, the town hosted a parade, led by the high school marching band, which played the Algerian national anthem.

"It blew their minds," Olson said. "It was a very emotional exchange, because all of the barriers came down on that trip. We became friends, and it was a tearful day when they left. Following that we had a youth exchange."

Elkader has since hosted four Algerian ambassadors. A "World Food Day" in 1990 featured El-Kader's great-great-grandson, Idriss Jazairy, the current Algerian ambassador in Washington, D.C. In 1996, over 400 Algerian-Americans converged on the town for the "Sweet Corn Parade." The town also enjoys a relationship with Muslims in nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home of the longest-standing mosque in the country.

"There are people against exchanges anywhere you go," Olson said, "because they don't take the time to understand. Our community has taken that time. We fear and condemn terrorists as much as anybody, but we also try to understand the innocent people on the other side."

After a period of exile, El-Kader settled in Damascus, wrote poetry and philosophy, and became known as a worldwide humanitarian figure for saving thousands of Christians during the 1860 civil war in the region. Napoleon III granted him the "Grand Cordon de la Legion d'Honneur"; President Abraham Lincoln sent a pair of dueling pistols.

"I think people can distinguish between terrorists and fanatics," Olson says, "and an Islamic leader like Abd-el Kader."

With a quiet, Midwestern aplomb, Olson relishes his town's entry into the fray of world diplomacy. The U.S. State Department once invited Olson to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with former Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid and then-Secretary of State George Shultz.

"Ordinary people, not just government officials," Olson said, "need to be part of the exchanges, for any real progress to be made."

In the late 1990s, the State Department and United States Information Agency program called again on Elkader, this time to host a delegation of Israeli Arabs from the largely Muslim town of Kfar Manda. Such a visit to rural America may appear to be superficial at first glance, according to Olson, but it represented that critical first step of diplomacy and peaceful border crossing.

"Cultural exchanges humanize the diplomatic process," Olson said. "You're no longer strangers."

In the meantime, while raising the American flag of patriotism and world peace, the town awaits its next mission.

Jeff Biggers is a freelance writer based in Illinois and Italy.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.