By Azeem Ibrahim
April 24, 2014
Recently, I was lucky enough to attend the world premiere of the stunning film, Enemy of the Reich, about young Muslim woman Noor Inayat Khan and her contribution to the Second World War.
It's a fantastic story and one which left quite a few of the audience in tears; I'll admit my own eyes welled too. What really hit home with me, however, were the words of the director before the movie. He pointed out that in almost all World War II movies; you hardly ever see a brown face, let alone a Muslim one.
That's despite Winston Churchill himself admitting the Britain could not have won the war without the Indian army.
Somehow, however, the fact that millions of Muslims chose to fight the Nazis has been overlooked. Likewise, very little is heard about those Muslims who offered shelter to Jews around the world either.
The story of Noor Inayat Khan goes some way to correcting this disparity.
A Sorbonne-educated child psychologist and children's book author, Khan was recruited to one of the most dangerous positions within the intelligence world, Churchill's covert Special Operations Executive. Khan's deep spirituality -- influenced by her Sufi Muslim leader father -- meant she believed in service for a greater good and couldn't sit by while Hitler committed his atrocities.
Helping the French resistance, Khan evaded capture for four months, changing locations even while the Germans tracked her whereabouts. During that time, she helped to save Jewish lives as well as single-handedly arranging the rescue of downed British and American pilots, before being captured in October 1943 and executed a year later.
It's no surprise that she received the highest honours for civilian service in war from both Great Britain and France. David Cameron recently praised her "inspirational self-sacrifice" and "indomitable courage."
As amazing as Noor Inayat Khan's story is, however, hers is just one story. There are many others yet to tell, and many that have been ignored. Hollywood still struggles with its portrayal of Muslims, all too often reverting to stereotype, even when real-life roles include sacrifice, courage and loyalty. The contribution of Muslims to our war successes is also glossed over in classrooms and in many history books.
As the film's Executive Producer Michael Wolfe told The Huffington Post, "There seems to be a tendency to forget that hundreds of thousands of volunteers from India joined the British forces. Many of them were Muslim, and were decorated and died in great numbers.
"There also seems to be a tendency to leave out of the narrative, the Algerians and the North Africans, all of who were Muslims and fought on the French side in the tens of thousands. In both cases, these were citizens of countries who were under colonial pressure from the very countries that they decided to serve. It was a moral and ethical choice [for them] to look past their agony to serve a higher purpose."
Muslim Lifestyle magazine, Emel.com, points out that more than 161,000 Indian army soldiers were killed in both world wars, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Forgotten Heroes -- The Muslim Contribution, Issue 62 of Emel.com, recalls:
Up to 40 percent of the Indian army were Muslim, even though they only made up about 25 percent of the Indian population.
Winston Churchill summed up the Muslim contribution in his letter to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. He wrote, "We must not on any account break with the Moslems, who represent a hundred million people, and the main army elements on which we must rely for the immediate fighting".
How sad that our close heritage has been neglected in recent times.
Everyone fighting for freedom in those dark days deserves to be remembered, no matter what their religion. Doing so, might just help tackle prejudice today.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College and International Security Lecturer at the University of Chicago.