By Imam Qari Asim
THIS weekend the country marks Remembrance Sunday. It is important to take some time to reflect upon the men and women who have lost their lives fighting for my country. It’s a moment when we come together to acknowledge their service and sacrifice, and also to reflect upon our nation’s history and what it means to us today.
Some of that history is not as known as it should be. Most of us are aware that the First World War happened 100 years ago and was fought against Germany. The overriding image we have of that conflict is probably of the “Tommy” in the trenches of Flanders, surrounded by mud and barbed wire with bullets and shells flying overhead.
Far fewer, however, know who those men were – that as well as soldiers from every corner of the UK, Britain’s forces included 1.5 million men from the undivided Indian subcontinent, fighting alongside others from the West Indies, Africa, Canada and Australia. There were 400,000 Muslim soldiers from what is now Pakistan. In many ways, the army that fought for Britain a century ago looked remarkably like the Britain we live in today, with people of different faith and ethnic backgrounds working side-by-side.
As tends to be the case with all soldiers, some of those who fought were not volunteers, but conscripts. The situation for Indian Muslims was yet more difficult than for some of their counterparts. They were fighting a war in unfamiliar lands, in harsh and cold climatic conditions that 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. More than 89,000 Muslim soldiers are known to have been killed during more than four years of a grinding war of attrition.
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'”. Yet, this story has not been widely told. 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 two per cent are aware of just how many served this country, though awareness is now growing.
This week I spoke in Bradford at the launch of a new film from British Future, the result of a project that brought together young people from the city’s Muslim and non-Muslim communities to learn about this shared First World War history. They then worked with local rap artist Blazer Boccle to express in lyrics what this new knowledge made them feel about British identity. For all these teenagers, this shared history was new to them, something they hadn’t been taught in school, which made them think differently about what it means to be part of Britain today.
At a time when anti-Muslim hatred is on the rise, and a minority has seized upon the Brexit vote as false 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. This is our shared history and Britain is our shared home. We can all choose how we mark that remembrance – whether by wearing a poppy or not – and while the vast majority of Muslims will support Remembrance, there is no need for Muslims to “prove” their loyalty to Britain.
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.
- Imam Qari Asim is spokesperson for British Muslim Forum and can be reached at @QariAsim