Marking the Muslim contribution to Britain in the World Wars

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اتَّكَلْنا منه على خُصٍّ الاتحاد قوة: Unity is power. Projects and Events Coordinator Fiona Smith talks about her experience showing school children the contribution made by Muslim soldiers during the World Wars.

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One of the most attractive qualities of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) for me, is that of equality. It appears such a modern concept for an organisation founded in 1917, however it is rooted in the Kenyon Report and a principle of remembrance itself. A physical manifestation of equality, between persons of all faiths and none, is the beautiful Stone of Remembrance, which is found in our larger cemeteries. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, it was envisaged to be a symbol of common sacrifice.

I have lead a handful of school tours around Brookwood Military Cemetery in my six months with the Commission. This month, myself and historian Max Dutton led a special delegation of Muslim school children around Britain’s largest CWGC site.

The tour was a standard one, peppered with personal stories and favourite anecdotes, and with a special nod to the distinct Muslim plot to the north east of the cemetery. For every rule in the Commission handbook, there is always an exception. Even in practicing equality, there is room to accommodate specific needs. Sixteen war graves were moved from Woking (itself a historic centre of Islam in Britain) to Brookwood, so they could be better cared for. The iconic CWGC headstones are adorned with Surahs from the Qu’ran – to Allah we belong and to him we return, and, He is forgiving, the merciful. You would see a similar sentiment on other personal inscriptions: the sacrifice is the same.

The graves point at an angle to the others on the site, towards Mecca and away from the Cross of Sacrifice. I’m very proud that within our organisation we have demonstrated the compassion and capacity to honour our fallen Muslim comrades in accordance with their faith.

 Yousif Ali

Yousif Ali

The story of Yousif Ali, who is buried at the Muslim plot at Brookwood, touched many of the pupils. Born in Sylhet, India (now part of Bangladesh), he moved to England in the 20s. He married an English lady, Ethel, but was later disowned by his own family. He worked as a court interpreter, helping fellow Indians, and as a doorman at a restaurant. He was sacked from his doorman job after being photographed with Mahatma Gandhi. When the Second World War broke out, Ali enlisted in the Royal Air Force volunteer reserve. He died after the war in 1947, succumbing to illness.

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As Max read out his story, one of perseverance and grit, and the courage to serve in the face of adversity, one pupil said out loud that he was discriminated against. It was especially poignant that the children assembled recognised right away, with no prompt from us, that Ali’s service was especially humbling given the unfair treatment he’d faced throughout his life.

The following day I visited the Shah Jahan mosque, Britain’s oldest purpose-build mosque, to represent the Commission at a reception. The atmosphere was incredible – the event was lively, fraternal, and happy. It’s always a joy to assist people in the search for their relatives or talk about the work of the Commission. The sacrifice made by Indian Muslim troops remains relatively unknown. Think tank, British Future commissioned research into Britain’s perception of the Muslim contribution the First World War. The polling revealed only 2% of the population are aware that some 400,000 Muslims, mostly from pre-partition India, fought alongside empire forces.

On the train home from Woking, I noticed on Instagram the Mayor of London had chosen to highlight Noor Inayat Khan’s story. Khan volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and for her bravery was awarded the George Cross. Only the day before I’d told our group of children about her, and how she is remembered at the Air Forces Memorial, Runnymede. Days later a campaign had sprung up on Twitter to honour Khan on the new £50 note. Her story and her sacrifice still resonates today. How despite appalling treatment she had refused to betray her comrades. How today she remains the most highly decorated Muslim woman in British military history. And how, despite the lack of a grave, she is remembered here by us and shall be forever.

 Noor Inayat Khan

Noor Inayat Khan