What do Muslims and World War I have in common? Not a question you’d hear every day, nor are the two obviously linked. However, it is a little known fact that 400, 000 Muslims fought in the British Army during the First World War.
Most people have a brief idea of why World War I was fought. In fact, you may have noticed or even joined in with Britain’s commemoration of the conflict. Last weekend saw people all around the country marking the centenary of the First World War with a single tea-light, as a symbol of hope in a blanket of darkness.
Living Islam Festival & British Future
Not only is World War I commemorated and taught as part of the history syllabus in schools, a recent ICM survey released by thinktank British Future revealed that only 2% of British people are aware of the Muslim support in the British army in 1914. The research was released on Saturday, during the throes of the Living Islam Festival. Described as the ‘Islamic Glastonbury’, the festival saw leading Muslim civic groups bring together their respective communities to take part in the centenary and encourage joint commemoration.
But what is the purpose of singling out the 400,000 Muslims who fought for the British army?
Recognising Muslims soldiers encourages British Muslim integration in modern day society, says Sughra Ahmed, President of the Islamic Society of Britain. She comments:
"We thought it was important at the Living Islam festival to play our part in marking this important moment of national reflection and shared commemoration. Many British Muslims won't know that hundreds of thousands of Muslims served in both world wars, so it's a chance for people to learn about that, and to think about what it means for us today. It is good too for wider British society to realise that our contribution to Britain goes back much further than many will realise. I think that could help us to come together to address the challenges of integration that we face in Britain today."
Soldiers from the Indian Army in the First World War were in fact the first to die
Muslims made a significant contribution to the World War I effort – something which is not openly discussed. It has been recorded that the soldiers from the Indian Army in the First World War were in fact the first to die, fighting on the Western Front line.
Historian Jahan Mahmood was invited to speak at the Living Islam festival about the British Indian Army’s support in the war. Using his ‘travelling military museum,’ Jahan displays British, Indian and German uniforms and decommissioned weapons to educate people on the Muslim role in the wars. He says:
"I want to not just highlight the contribution made by different ethnic communities, but also delve into more Muslim stories and family histories, including those who fought for and against Britain, or refused to fight."
This recent data release is educational for those unaware about the extent of foreign involvement in the First World War. It certainly counteracts existing anti-Islamic feeling which suggests that Islamic influence is damaging Britain. We only need to take a short glimpse at national papers to see formidable headlines carrying threatening warnings such as ‘Halal food row’ and ‘Trojan horse’ dominating our news.
War may not be the most positive foundations to build relations on, but it is a basis for cooperation nonetheless. The conflict certainly highlights a sense of camaraderie between the British and Muslims, something which need not evaporate today. The large figures are evidence enough that Muslim relations with the English haven’t always been a point of contention, but instead intimate at a partnership.
So perhaps the next time a British Muslim feels slightly exasperated by Islam’s negative publicity in British media, they can, at the very least, seek consolation from their historical relations with Britain. Muslims have a long and positive history with the British, so what better way to show some solidarity than through history itself?