Have you heard of the Female Muslim Spy who was tortured by the Nazi’s?
Categories: Latest News
Tuesday November 12 2019
Xenophobic, Islamophobic, and Orientalist narratives that often dominate the media frequently centre upon suggestions of clashes of civilisations, dichotomies between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and foreign identities that have no place within the national collective. Such discourses propagate an impression that Muslims have nothing valuable to offer and bely the reality of Muslim contributions and sacrifices that have helped to shape British society as we know it.
As but one example, while public commemorations of Armistice Day express solidarity with all those who have bravely risked their lives in service to their country, tributes honouring the lives of Muslim and other ethnic minority soldiers are often noted to be surprisingly absent.
Historical accounts describe the experiences of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish soldiers fighting in the world war side-by-side; sharing their experiences and appreciating each other’s cultures and religions. However, while the experiences and contribution of European soldiers in the First World War have been extensively documented, public perception is largely oblivious to the multi-ethnic and religious contributions to the armed forces over the past two centuries.
Few people are aware of the multi-ethnic diversity of the allied forces and the contribution of Muslims that fought alongside Christians, Sikhs, Jews and Hindus on the battlefield during WWI and WWII. Indeed, research conducted by British Future discovered that only 1 in 5 people know about Muslim contributions during WWI, and only 2% are aware of its scale. Public knowledge surrounding the World Wars is often characterised by a singularly ethnocentric perception, with a frequently exclusive focus on White western efforts and little, if any, mention of the contributions of individuals from and array of ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Consequently, Muslim and minority communities experience a narrative omission, whereby the inspiring stories and legacies of their contributions to British society remain overwhelmingly absent from the collective imagination of history and identity.
However, World War I saw an army of an estimated 1.5 million volunteers from India; 400,000 of those were Muslims, and 140,000 saw active service on the Western Front. Amongst the inspiring stories of those who contributed in these efforts is that of Noor Inayat Khan, a British Indian Muslim woman who served during World War II. Noor Inayat Khan joined the Women’s Auxillary Air Force and was later recruited to join the French section of the Special Operations Executive. Khan received specialisedtraining as a wireless operator in occupied territory and was the first female radio operator to be sent into Nazi-occupied France in 1943. She ran a spy ring in Paris to infiltrate the Nazis before she was eventually captured, imprisoned, and tortured. As a prisoner, with her hands and feet shackled, Khan still refused to give any information that would harm the Allied Forces. She was transferred to Dachau concentration camp in Germany and executed on 13th September 1944.
Khan’s bravery has been recognised by being posthumously awarded the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre. Meanwhile, a memorial bust commemorating Khan’s sacrifice can be found in Bloomsbury. It was the first stand-alone memorial dedicated to an Asian woman in the UK. In 2018, a campaign backed by MPs petitioned for her face to be on the new £50 note and English Heritage (an organisation celebrating notable people in history), is currently planning to create a traditional blue plaque for her.
While Khan’s efforts are celebrated, the majority of Muslim veterans fail to enjoy true recognition for their sacrifices. In a recent interview by Channel 4, the 99-year-old veteran Inayet Ali revealed that he has never been invited to any official remembrance service because he served in the Indian – not the British – army, despite fighting for Britain in WWII.
However, untold stories such as Ali’s are finally being heard amongst growing efforts to counter the neglected history of ethnic minority contributions. In 2014 a project by the Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation, for the first time, documented the participation of all the Muslims who fought and worked for the allied forces during the First World War. Its research, led by Luc Ferrier, shows that estimates of the current figure of 2.5 million Muslims fighting for the Allied forces during WWI, could increase. Such projects are promising developments and must be followed by initiatives to decolonise education in order to raise awareness of the shared histories that have moulded our nation and to embed this understanding within the wider public imagination.
This Armistice Day, it is essential that we remember the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have bravely served in our armed forces, including the roughly 650 Muslims presently serving in the British Army.
MEND calls on policymakers to commit to supporting academic freedoms and initiatives to decolonise education, whilst giving greater emphasis within the national curriculum to shared histories and the contributions of minority communities in building our society.