I'm an imam, and I'll be leading the Remembrance Sunday services for the Muslims who died fighting for our country

Historic records show that at least 885,000 Muslims were recruited from across the Muslim world to fight for the Allies, and over 89,000 are known to have been killed. Research found that only a fifth of people are aware that Muslim soldiers fought at all in the Great War

Click to follow

I will be attending the Cenotaph Service and Parade in Whitehall on Sunday 13th November along with other faith leaders to remember those who gave their lives for our country. As we are united in remembrance, they were united in their sacrifice – men and women of all faiths and of none. 

We will remember hundreds of thousands of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and people of other minority faiths who have served in the British Armed Forces across two World Wars, laying down their lives to defeat the menace of Nazism and to keep Britain safe.    

Few people know about the role of Muslim soldiers in the World Wars and our shared multi-ethnic history. In the First World War, 1.5 million soldiers from the undivided Indian-subcontinent fought for Britain in 1914-18 – 400,000 of them Muslims from what is now Pakistan. It was Indian jawans (junior soldiers) who stopped the German advance at Ypres in the autumn of 1914, soon after the war broke out, while the British were still recruiting and training their own forces. The bodies of many of these Muslims men were never found and their names are listed on the Menin Gate memorial.  

Historic records show that at least 885,000 Muslims were recruited from across the Muslim world to fight for the Allies – including Britain, France, the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Hejaz (now western Saudi Arabia). Over 89,000 are known to have been killed during more than four years of a grinding war of attrition. Research from think tank British Future ahead of the First World War centenary found that only a fifth of people are aware that Muslim soldiers fought at all in the Great War of 1914-18, and only 2 per cent are aware of just how many served this country, though awareness is now growing.
 

Rethink remembrance: WWII veterans in moving Armed Forces video

Amongst my mosque congregation, there are many whose fathers and grandfathers fought in these two devastating wars. These forgotten heroes were men of the empire who gave their lives and limbs in the name of duty. There are many Muslims who still continue to serve in the Armed Forces, defending the interests and values of this country. In my own home town of Leeds, a member of the armed forces comes to pray at our mosque when he is on leave, visiting his family in Yorkshire. His family are proud of his achievements, and the community values his contribution.

 

There is a similar story across the continent. Last week, I visited the Great Mosque of Paris as part of the Peace delegation organised by the London Faiths Forum. Dr Seddiki, the director of the institute responsible for training Imams in France, told us how his grandfather had fought for the Allied Forces, and how proud he was of his shared heritage with his fellow citizens and with us in Britain.   

The Great Mosque of Paris itself was initially constructed by the French government in honour of the French Arab community that fought in the World War I – especially those who perished at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. Inside the mosque building there is a memorial site. The names of some of the first Muslim soldiers that laid down their lives for Allied Forces are cut into a panel on the wall. Many of the visitors that come to the mosque throughout the year pay their respects to these and many other fallen soldiers.

As tends to be the case with all soldiers, some of those who fought were not volunteers, but conscripts. The situation for Muslims was yet more difficult than for some of their counterparts.  First, many of these Muslim men were fighting soldiers from the Ottoman Empire – a Muslim Empire. Second, they had to observe their religion (e.g. eating halal food, and not drinking alcohol) even during the war. Third, they were fighting a war in unfamiliar lands, in harsh and cold climatic conditions they were neither used to nor prepared for, risking their lives every day so that we could enjoy the freedoms that we have, and appreciate the values that we hold dear.

The most famous epitaph inscribed at the Kohima War Cemetery in North East India sums up the sentiments of many of the Muslim soldiers: "When you go home, tell them of us and say: 'For your tomorrow, we gave our today'". 

At a time when anti-Muslim hatred is on the rise, and a minority has seized upon the Brexit vote as justification for questioning the loyalty of ethnic minorities to Britain, it’s only right that the heroism and bravery of Muslim soldiers who fought in the First and Second World Wars is also remembered. When going through the long list of the fallen, I cannot help but be struck by the symbolism of the religious backgrounds of British soldiers. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and others have all died fighting for the British people. On Remembrance Sunday, we should remember the power of Britain's pluralism and that our strength as Brits comes from our diversity and not from our differences. 

Remembering the fallen reminds us of our shared history and shared British identity, and inspires us to work towards a shared future. At a time when Britain's relations with our European neighbours are under question, both sides of the referendum debate could do well by valuing the reconciliation with former enemies and friendship to bring about peace and harmony in the world. Global and catastrophic wars of the past century must also serve as a reminder of the sacrifices that continue to be made by those who are defending their countries and the values that uphold freedoms, justice diversity, and human rights.  

If our past generations could give their lives, we can also move away from politics of hatred and division to respect and acceptance – so that we can bequeath a more peaceful and better world to our future generations. 

Comments