- Who Commands the Faithful?
In February 1856, the three-year Crimean War in which Britain, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire had fought against Russia’s moves toward expanding its influence symbolically over the Christian holy places in Ottoman Jerusalem came to an end. In truth, the war was just the latest stage of the struggle among Christian states and empires for advantage, as the Ottoman “Sick Man of Europe” declined further. One of the many consequences of Crimean War diplomacy was the proclamation by the Ottoman Sultan of an edict called Hatti Humayun. This reform would give the empire’s Christians and Jews equality before the law, doing away with the traditional dhimmi, protected, but disadvantaged, status of these minorities. The new situation would allow Christians and Jews to testify in Muslim courts, have access to government positions, and participate in the Ottoman army. Significantly, it would relieve the minorities of the need to pay the jizya, or head tax, which had been their burden since the earliest days of Islam.
Backed by the growing influence and self-confidence of the European powers, Maronite Christians in Lebanon stopped paying their jizya, even though the Ottoman authorities had ignored the reforms of Hatti Humayun. As John Kiser explains in his monumental study of the life of Emir Abd el-Kader [Amir ‘Abd al-Qadir], the legendary Algerian nationalist who raised tribes to fight the French occupation of his country from 1832 to 1847, Turkish authorities wanted their ten shillings per Christian and had no interest in having them in the army. This tension led to a plot by the governor of Damascus, Ahmed Pasha, to teach the Christians a lesson by organizing a pogrom to be led by Druze warriors with the help of Arab, Kurdish, and Druze street people. Abd el-Kader, in French-financed, comfortable, and respected exile in Damascus — having voluntarily surrendered to the French in Algeria in 1847 after concluding that further fighting would be futile and result in the deaths of many more innocents — had developed a defense plan against the anti-Christian pogrom with the French consul. The latter had provided funds to arm a thousand of his Algerian fighters.
Ahmed Pasha had little trouble in arousing a mob of Muslims who had already been incensed by Christian European powers who pushed around, bullied, and occupied Muslims lands (cf. 20th century Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, and Iraq). On July 9, 1860, mobs attacked the Christian neighborhoods of Damascus, and Abd el-Kader went to the rescue. He already had brought the Russian, American, Dutch, and Greek consuls to his large home, and the French consul joined them. With his sons and armed men, he went into the streets to gather up as many Christians as he could find to bring to safety in his walled compound. [End Page 141] He rescued 400 orphans, six priests, and 11 nuns. Franciscan priests and brothers who did not trust the Muslim would-be savior were burned alive in their building. In five days of rioting and murder, thousands of Christians were killed. The French consul said later that he believed Abd el-Kader had saved some 11,000 Christians.
This background is important for setting the stage for Kiser’s narrative because Abd el-Kader’s heroism in defense of Christians against Muslim mobs made him an international celebrity. French newspapers wrote, “While the Turkish authorities were inexplicitly lethargic … the emir’s behavior was admirable. Day and night, he looked after the general safety of the population, giving clear proof of his devotion to humanity and self-sacrifice.” Another wrote, “The emir Abd el-Kader has immortalized himself by the courageous protection he has given the Syrian Christians. One of the most beautiful pages of the history of the 19th century will be devoted to him.” Another said, “When the carnage was at its worst, the emir appeared in the streets, as...