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We Need to Remember Britain's Muslim Soldiers

Almost 400,000 Muslims fought for Britain during WWI—a fact almost nobody knows.

by David Gilmour
11 November 2015, 4:00pm

The Cenotaph, Whitehall. Photo by Carcharoth via Wikimedia Commons

For many, today is a sombre one. The November 11, Armistice Day, marks the date that World War One ended, but it's also come to represent a day of remembrance for all those who've died fighting in wars—hence the name that's now more commonly used, Veterans Day.

The occasion offers space for citizens to reflect on the colossal human suffering and loss experienced in conflict—although, that can of course be done in all sorts of ways. While most might lay a wreath or simply observe the two-minute silence at 11 AM, some take it as an opportunity to be an even louder brand of dickhead than normal. The types who've developed weirdly passionate opinions about halal food over the past couple of years—or woke up today ready to share a "True patriots stand up to mega-mosques, like if you agree" text post on Facebook—take occasions like Remembrance Day to blindly scream their hatred into the vast nothing of the internet.

Independent think-tank British Future has been active in openly countering these kind of voices. Last year, for example, they sought to hush radicals trying to intimidate Muslims who observed war commemorations with statistical reports about the role that Muslims have played in wars of the past. Organizations like this believe that the misguided opinions of the British far-right are perpetuated—in part, at least—by a hazy omission on the part of many historians. It's this over-simplified, euro-centric narrative, they say, that leaves history open to exploitation by right-wing extremists and Islamists alike.

Speaking to the Labour and Conservative Party conferences in September and October, Sundar Katwala, director at British Future, explained "that [in terms of religion and nationality], the army which fought on the Somme in 1916 looked more like the Britain of 2015 than the Britain of a century ago."

He went on: "Almost nobody is aware that 400,000 Muslims fought for Britain. The centenary of the First World War has offered a resonant opportunity to discover that untold story and to realize that, although Britain has changed fast in recent years, the roots of our multi-ethnic and multi-faith society go back a long way."

According to an ICM survey carried out last year on behalf of British Future, 78 percent of people in the UK are totally unaware of this contribution to the war by people of other faith groups and ethnicities.

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"[There is] a symbiotic relationship of extremisms in our society," said Katwala. "I don't think it's any surprise that Anjem Choudary's various fronts and the EDL grew up together in the playgrounds of Luton. The Islamist extremists and the white far-right extremists need each other, feed off each other, and help each side verify its 'them and us' narrative of grievances to its target audience."

Over half of the UK's 3 million Muslims are under 24 years old. Katwala argues that young people deserve an inclusive narrative and that a shared look at history is a necessary part of a shared society, with equal ownership over what it means to be British.

"We also need calls to action—about what being part of this society means, about the things we share in common, about the values and opportunities of that this society has to offer; about the things we seek to do together," he says. "This needs to be broader than any particular minority community: it needs to be about all of us."

Naik Shahmed Khan, who received the Victoria Cross after his service in WWI. Photo via Wikipedia

On October 27 at the Forum for New Diplomacy in London, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova highlighted the importance of preserving and teaching history, referencing the destruction of historical artifacts and heritage sites by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Since the start of the war in Syria, hundreds of thousands of refugees have experienced the same kind of horrors that have haunted World War veterans across the past century and into old age. Whether that's suffocating chemical weapons, ethnic ,and cultural cleansing campaigns, or the annihilation of homes and cities, there's a straight-forward and disturbing parallel between the suffering of the displaced people of Syria and Iraq and the people of early 20th century Europe.

Her words echoed the sentiment of a Joint Appeal she had issued a year earlier alongside UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and other international representatives. The Appeal declared that "destroying inheritance of the past robs future generations of a powerful legacy, deepens hatred and despair, and undermines all attempts to foster reconciliation... time to stop the destruction, build peace, and protect our common heritage."

Human rights lawyer and parliamentary researcher Hayyan Ayaz Bhabha tells me that Bokova's words hold equally true when it comes to limited Western narratives around the Muslim veterans of both World Wars. "To sow a positive sense of identity and belonging in Europe among Muslims today, [against a] background of such negativity, it's essential we preserve and teach the heritage and history of Muslims from around the world. The men and women of MENA, like many of the British soldiers and officers, had no stake in the European war that erupted in August 1914."

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Like Katwala, Bhabha argues that an inclusive and shared society requires an inclusive and, basically, factually-honest historical narrative. This is, in large part, the mission of the Forgotten Heroes Foundation (FHF), an independent Belgian charity for which Bhabha acts as the non-executive Director of UK Operations.

Over the last three years, FHF have gained exclusive access to the Arabic and Farsi-language World War One archives held by countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and America. This invaluable treasure trove includes written records, personal diaries and photographs.

What FHF want the records to depict is not just statistics, but stories of real humanity, with the hope that they can be used positively to educate. Among soldiers' personal diaries are numerous accounts of European soldiers sharing natural medicines and treatments learned from their Muslim comrades, and of their experiences in sharing each other's cultures, music, food, and religious practices in the trenches—despite the harrowing conditions.

In many of the reports due to be translated, Muslim soldiers were also noted for their remarkable behavior toward the captured enemy.

Before the Geneva Convention had been imagined, Bhabha tells me, these soldiers referred to the Qur'an and hadith while insisting that German prisoners of war be fed in a dignified manner and not forced to beg for their food. Other sources depict care for the injured enemy and are corroborated by the testimonies of surprised French, Belgian, and Canadian officers writing home.

FHF are currently crowd-funding a project to digitize and archive all 500,000 documents and images to be open to the public. Another aim of the foundation is creating a six-year interactive and immersive exhibition solely dedicated to the Muslim soldiers. If the funds are raised it will become the first of its kind in paying tribute to the citizens of the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia who served on the Western Front.

The FHF project aims to establish a full and real understanding of this part of history. The secondary purpose is a deliberate recognition of true humanity, shining a light on people who found commonality in the muddy trenches of France. It's a lesson Bhabha believes will prove invaluable to our society today.

"These findings challenge religious extremists, who are often sectarian, by retelling the personal accounts from soldier's dairies of interfaith and intra-faith interactions between Sunni/Shia, Jewish, Christian, Sikh, and Hindu brothers in arms," he explains. "We want future generations who can confidently challenge and think critically about divisive narratives that suggest people of different faiths and cultures can't live peacefully or work together. Ultimately, this project is a tool to promote and improve social cohesion and build bridges of peace internationally, at a time when it is most needed."

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