This is a guest post by Haroon Ravat.
Many observers trace the origin and development of the English Defence League to a poppy-burning publicity stunt staged by the group Muslims Against Crusaders (MAC) at last year’s Armistice Day commemorations. For many British Muslims like myself, the actions of MAC left us in a precarious situation with the tabloid press intent on providing front page publicity to a fanatical fringe and strengthening the EDL argument that we are a minority of fifth-columnists who cannot be trusted in relation to our loyalties to Britain. Muslims who adopted a principled anti-interventionist attitude towards the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also felt that they could no longer articulate their position without being connected somehow to the opinions of Anjum Chaudhry’s band of merry but troubled men.
The recent murders of Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali and Abdul Musavir forced a much needed realignment in public opinion towards Britain’s largest and arguably most visible minority. Brutally run over whilst protecting local shops from looters, the principle of laying down your life in order to protect the innocent was thought to be an archaic concept from bygone eras of conquest and marauding tribes. However, within a moment of tragedy the boys recovered for many thousands of British Muslims the true meaning of the word ‘jihad’, which means ‘to struggle’ in Arabic from the nihilists of Al-Qaida.
Many Britons may be surprised to hear that shedding blood in the defence of Blighty is actually a time-honoured tradition within the Indo-Pakistani Muslim communities. Jahan Mahmood is a community and military historian that has pieced together dozens of accounts of individual heroism and thousands of photographs and other archive material. Over 4 million volunteers signed up to serve within the ranks of the British Indian Army over two World Wars. Proportionately Sikhs provided the largest fighting group. However Muslims from what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh contributed by far the largest numbers of commonwealth troops in key campaigns within North Africa, Italy and the Far East.
Jahan’s study, conducted largely amongst young British Pakistanis within Birmingham unveiled some interesting facts. Many of their parents and grandparents originated from many of the same village and tribal areas that provided the bulk of frontline troops. Infact Shahzad Ali’s and Abdul Musavir’s families originate from a region of Pakistan that provided some of the largest numbers of volunteers for the British Indian Army.
An extensive project that has led him from archives at the Imperial War Museum and the British Army Museum to attics and basements within inner-city Birmingham. He has unearthed a wealth of material that is proving invaluable in reconnecting young Asian Britons to their military past. By illustrating how these brave young men, some only 15 years old when they left their families and their villages to fight in far-off lands for Britain he is providing a strong counter-narrative to the messages frequently put out by both Islamists and the far-right that we were always destined to live parallel lives.
Khudadad Khan was born in Jhelum, Punjab Province of modern-day Pakistan and was the first South Asian recipient of the Victoria Cross. His Baloch (Baluch) regiment heroically defended Allied position in a large scale German offensive at the First Battle of Ypres, a major offensive near Belgium in Oct 1914. After all of his comrades were wounded or killed, Khan continued to man his machine gun battery until reinforcements arrived. Jahan’s work in schools and community centres led to a chance encounter with Khudadad Khan’s grandson.
We also celebrate the story of Ali Haider, a Sepoy within 6th Royal Battalion 13th Frontier Force Rifles. On 9th April 1945 Haider charged and single-handedly took out two heavily fortified german posts whilst badly wounded. His actions allowed the crossing of the River Senio critical in Allied plans to capture Italy. Haider came from the village of Kohat, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.
But by far one of the most moving stories of Muslim gallantry and heroism is the life and death of Noor Inayat Khan, Britain’s one and only Spy Princess. Heralding from Indian royalty, Noor’s father was Hazrat Inayat Khan a sufi muslim preacher. Her mother Ora Meena Baker was an American from New Mexico. Working in dangerous conditions as a wireless radio operator behind enemy lines in occupied France, Noor or ‘Nora Baker’ was betrayed to the Germans and was executed at Dachau concentration camp in 1944. There is now a campaign under way to establish a permanent memorial in her honour at Gordon Square, spearheaded by Indian writer and biographer Shrabani Basu.
Today there are over 600 Muslims on active service within today’s British Armed Forces. The fact that many hundreds of thousands of “Indians” fought voluntarily for the freedom of Britain at a time when they were denied their own freedom remains one of the strongest arguments for defending multiculturalism. Remembering the sacrifices made by all communities – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Sikh can serve to be a unifying factor for broken Britain. The Shared History Project, may provide the answer to many of our present problems, for more information please visit www.britainsmuslimsoldiers.com It may help to provide an alternative point of reference in defining what multiculturalism and what being British is actually all about away from an exclusivist Anglo-Saxon paradigm of the EDL or of an endemically Islamophobic Christian power bloc depicted by groups such as MAC. By exploring facets of our shared past we can also impart important lessons about democracy, liberty and tolerance for all of our future generations.
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Filed in: EDL,History,Muslim