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...His book paints a surprising picture of the bonds of faith between Christians and Muslims, and provides a ray of hope for the future.
Pulitzer Prize winner William W. Warner calls John Kiser's newest book, The Monks of Tibhirine, "...a must read shocker for those unaware of recent Algerian history. ...beautifully written."
Kiser reconstructs patiently and impartially the sad story of an Algeria in which spirituality and violence, peace and war, great hopes and great contradictions are skillfully interwoven. The book is a testimony to the living pain of a country in search of an identity.
By Mr. Kiser's own evidence, Muslims in general are not at war with the West in general, or Christianity in particular... What he does quite well is tell the story, at once sad and inspiring, of very good men who took their vocation seriously and died for it.
This book is not the first written about the monks of Tibhirine... but it could well be the best among all those written in any language so far.
"A heart wrenching story of French monks slaughtered by Islamic extremists in Algeria. Kiser builds up the drama leading to the monks death with the skill of a novelist... His painstaking characterization of each monk makes this an incredibly emotional story."
...The Monks of Tibhirine is not only a penetrating account of recent historical events, but of ideas and ideologies driving them.
As people seek to make sense of post sept 11, this wonderful book offers much needed perspective..the inward struggle and conviction portrayed ennoble those who read these lines.
An unusual and remarkable book: Part journalism, part psychological analysis, and part Judeo Christian-Islamic ecumenism, the author succeeds on all three fronts. A tour de force.
Q&A with John W. Kiser
How did you come to write this book? What drew you to the story?
The book would not have been written if I had not spent a sabbatical year with my family in the south of France from 1994 to1995. While I was there, I was exposed to the tensions caused by France's historical relationship with Algeria and the problems of accepting Muslims in French society, which is much more secular than ours. I also joined a local Christian-Muslim discussion group at the parish. I was amazed at the amount of mutual ignorance, despite France's long connection with Algeria.
I was drawn to the story because for me it represented a great adventure, one that was both spiritual and political. Through this story I wanted to understand how it is that religion can be a force for so much good and for so much evil in the world. Through the monks, I wanted to share in an expression of the Christian faith that I found very appealing -- what I consider a real Christianity of truly universal, brotherly love, where it was lived, not preached, and where its practice by members of the Church was viewed simply as a sign of God' s love for Muslims and for all people of good will. At the same time, I wanted to gain insights into the Muslim world and the religion of Islam, seen through the eyes of sympathetic Christians. Politically, I wanted to understand the violence occurring in Algeria, which appears to be a microcosm of the conflicts within in the larger Muslim world.
Also, I went to a boarding school where for six years I lived in conditions that today would be considered monastic. It was good place for me to have spent those years and may explain my vague but long-standing interest in monks.
What were Trappist monks doing in a Muslim country in the first place?
Their presence, like that of all the other Christians in Algeria, is a legacy of the French colonization of Algeria. After the war of independence ended in 1962, some French and people of other nationalities who had been sympathetic to the Algerians' desire for self-determination remained in the country. The Church had a dual role: to serve the needs of Muslims through good works by running schools and hospitals and caring for the aged, and to minister to the remaining Europeans. In a Muslim country, Christians must show the reality of their faith through their works and their sincere piety. Prayer is very important in the Muslim faith as a way of showing humility and gratitude towards our Creator. That's why the presence of the monks was so important historically. They were first brought to Algeria in the early part of the French occupation in 19th century to show Muslims that the French were not all atheists. The Muslims had been shocked by the absence of outward signs that the French were believers.
Why did the monks stay on despite warnings to leave by both the French and Algerian governments?
They stayed on for the same reason a mother or a nurse exposes herself to danger to take care of a child with TB or cholera. As Trappists, they had taken vows of stability and poverty. Trappists commit themselves to stay with their chosen community. They had developed strong bonds of friendship and trust towards their Muslim neighbors who reciprocated that friendship. That meant sharing in their suffering and insecurity, which was no less than that of the monks. Muslims, not Christians, were the main targets of the armed militants. There was a strong sense of solidarity that would have been broken if they had hightailed it to a safe place when their neighbors did not have that option.
What relevance does the story have for post-Sept. 11?
It reminds us that just as the Algerian government was seen as an ersatz French power by the militants opposing it, so today the U.S. is seen by many militants as kind of indirect colonial power supporting governments that are often arbitrary and oppressive. al-Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency are following the Bush doctrine: The friend of my enemy is my enemy.
The story of the monks also demonstrates the need to maintain a very differentiated picture of Islam and of Muslims. There are as many different kinds of Muslims as there are different kinds of Christians. And to remember that violence doe not just happen. It is a fever rooted in a sick, festering, societal situation that is going untreated. Islamic political violence is a form of desperation in the face of injustice or the hypocrisy of the governments, which have become insufferable to certain elements in society.
Sept.11 is also a reminder of what dangerous weapons holy scriptures are in the hands of those full of anger and hatred, and whose leaders manipulate scripture as an a la carte menu to serve political purposes. They can often skillfully convert the anger of the poorly instructed (in religion) into an expression of holy righteousness. St. Benedictine warns his monks of "the zeal of bitterness" that leads to Hell.
What do you think we can learn from the monks in this story?
The importance of controlling our passions, especially anger, and not let our passions turn into raging hatred. And to remember that more than anything else, terrorists are angry people. The means they use show that they typically belong to the weak, marginalized elements of a society, and their frustration drives them to use their own bodies as weapons of destruction. If they had cruise missiles and bombers, they would use them instead. It was certainly the case with the FLN in Algeria. But to win, they need to be seen as having moral arguments on their side in the bigger world court of public opinion.
Why were the monks killed?
The first question is: Why were they kidnapped in the first place? I present many theories, but I don't know the answer nor does anyone I have spoken with. I do believe their captors had to make good their threat to kill their hostages if the French didn't do certain things in a timely manner. The captors had negotiated an exchange of monks for prisoners through unofficial French channels under the auspices of the French Interior Minister. When the official machinery of government security took over the negotiations and things didn't happen on schedule, the terrorists assumed bad faith.
How dangerous is Algeria today? Did you go and visit the monastery?
Yes, several times since 1999. I don't think it's dangerous for the average person, especially for visitors like myself passing through, if they follow the advice of the locals. Don't drive on remote country roads. Avoid certain areas. Get home before dark. When I was in Algiers Oran and Mascara , I had no sense of danger. People were quite relaxed and life seemed pretty normal.
What have you personally taken away from this story?
A greater appreciation of the importance of staying connected to my family and community. A greater appreciation of the virtues of patience and self-control -- especially holding my tongue.
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