Shared Heritage – Ethnic Communities Contribution to World Wars

By Dr Qari Asim

Imam – Makkah Mosque, Leeds



This year marks 100 years since The First World War began. This historic event changed the course of history; its impact on families, communities and countries is still felt today. To commemorate the centenary of the first Muslim soldier being awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery, British Future and Islamic Society of Britain, in collaboration with a fashion designer, have created a ‘poppy hijab’.

Sepoy Khudadad Khan was one of 1.2 million Indian soldiers and 400,000 Muslims who fought alongside British troops in the First World War. He was the sole survivor of a team assigned to defend vital ports in France and Belgium from being taken by German troops. Despite being outnumbered, Khan managed to hold off the enemy advance long enough for British reinforcements to arrive.

The launch of The Poppy Hijab has not been without its critics. Some argue that this is yet another way of putting pressure on British Muslims to prove their loyalty to Britain and their commitment to ‘Britishness’.

The rights are wrongs of the launch of Poppy Hijab and the aims behind it will continue to be debated for some time. However, what is clear is that most people do not know how many Muslims fought for Britain in World War I and II. The integration think tank, British Future, carried out a survey tracking people’s attitudes to the centenary of World War One and found only one in five Britons realised Muslims had fought for Britain – a lower level of awareness than that for the contribution of soldiers from other faiths.

At a time when some of our youth are hearing divisive messages over the Internet, it is even more important that we are clear about our place in British society. The fact of remembering the fallen should not be politicized and solely linked to the current foreign policy. This is nothing to do with race, caste or religion, it is to respect the human beings and that they gave their lives to the country. There is a long and shared history of contribution from different faiths and ethnicities in defending Britain.

Millions of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and people of other minority faiths have served in the British Armed Forces across two World Wars, facing down the hatred of Nazism and helping keep Britain safe in its direst hours of need. During First World War, more than 47,000 died and 65,000 Indian soldiers were wounded.

Wearing a poppy should not be seen as an underlying support for war. Wars are never to be glorified and loss of life on both sides is deeply regrettable. Broadly speaking, soldiers in each war are unaware of the wider political agenda and they participate in a war defending the interests of their country and securing a better future for their generations; and their contribution should be recognised.

It is a sad reality that some politicians and media outlets view Muslims with suspicion, which is sometimes manifested in a “with us” or “with them” attitude. At a time when the Far Right is questioning British Muslims’ loyalty, it is important to remember that Muslims have made the ultimate sacrifices and given their blood to British Empire.  Britain is home of our children, along with others living in this country. We are part of the social, economic and defense fabric of this country and we continue to positively contribute to British Society.

Fathers, grandfathers and uncles of many British Muslims fought selflessly and bravely in The First and Second World Wars so that peace could become a possibility in the future. They then came back to Britain help rebuild it from the aftermath of the destruction and chaos. We need to value and remember this legacy.

It must be acknowledged that wearing poppies is not and should not be the only way to remember the fallen. No one should feel pressurised to wear a poppy. Those who choose not to wear a poppy should not be seen as less loyal to this country. They are entitled to their opinion. Their right to express their view is, after all, what we fought for in the Two World Wars. The irony is that there are people who speak with pride against the fight against fascism then abuse those who express their opinions otherwise.

More than anything else, the act of wearing a poppy should remind us all, in particular those in authority, of the suffering of all, on both sides of a war, including the soldiers.

Many Muslims, as part of We Remember Too project, initiated in 2013, are promoting the contribution of different faith communities’ in historic war efforts.

The project promotes our shared British heritage and brings people of different backgrounds together, thus strengthening integration and challenging extremism (both Far Right and ISIL inspired ideologies).

It is that time of the year to remember the suffering of all – civilians and soldiers, on both sides of a war, including the current war casualties. Remembrance Days should be used as an opportunity to say ‘never again’ and resolve to implement such policies that will truly result in peace in our world.

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