Muslim Heroes of the First World War: How One Man’s Great Grandfather Changed the Course of History

Muslim Heroes of the First World War: How One Man’s Great Grandfather Changed the Course of History

The Gul Mawaz Khan Memorial Foundation is devoted to forgotten heroes–heroes whose history can bridge the divisions that plague British society today.

It was through a mutual friend that I came to know about Babar Raja and his work. One hundred years have passed since the end of the First World War, a conflict that claimed some 20 million lives. In today’s volatile climate, changing demographics and a subsequent spike in xenophobia have seen emboldened reactionary public figures in Europe capitalise on fears and rally their audiences around nationalism, nostalgia for the glory years of yore, and a quasi pan-European identity rooted in opposition to a foreign other. Fewer things serve to unite more than the collective memory of war, especially the Great War, which drastically affected not only the European continent, but the world as a whole and which saw the crumbling of world empires, the shifting of borders, and the creation of new nations. As with history in general–for which we exhibit worryingly short-term memory–our recollection of the war is, unsurprisingly, coloured by its portrayal in popular culture and its reinvention through the aforementioned mouthpieces of propaganda, who neglect those facets which do not serve their narratives.

“It is our country. Did Pakistanis form and defend Britain for 100s of years? No. Ethnically British white people did.” BBC Stories reported on a Twitter user who claimed the above, to which one Scottish-Pakistani writer replied that her great-grandfather ‘fought and died for the British army’. The disparaging comment to which she responded is one of many. What they all reflect, in addition to an alarming ignorance of history, is the unsettling tendency to ‘other’, to exclude, to dismiss, and to erase the contributions of non-ethnically British people to British society and, in this case, the British war effort.

“Over 4 million non-white non-European men were deployed into European and American armies between 1914 and 1918, providing frontline and auxiliary aid on and beyond the Western Front,” writes Mena Sultan in an article for the Guardian entitled ‘Forgotten heroes of the first world war’. This figure includes Africans, Chinese, Vietnamese, and over one million Indian soldiers, eleven of whom won Victoria Crosses. Even then, however, as today, anxiety driven by prejudice prompted some to question the effects of racial mixing. One writer wrote, “Already there are more coloured men employed in Manchester and other great towns in England…Will English working men…be willing that natives should compete in the skilled and unskilled labour market?”

Recently, a growing number of writers and activists have risen to challenge exclusionary narratives, highlighting the vital contributions of ethnically diverse populations to Britain and the Allied war effort.

Qari Asim, in an article for Metro, writes, “Soldiers from across the Commonwealth fought for Britain in the First World War – from the Caribbean and Australia to Canada and South Africa. Over a million soldiers from pre-partition India signed up too, many of them posted to the trenches of the Western Front, braving their first-ever European winter in their tropical uniforms…Yet only a fifth of people (22%) are aware of [the] vast Muslim contribution to Britain’s forces. This is a story that should matter to everyone in Britain today, from the young Muslims who come to worship at my mosque in Leeds to those who have little contact with people from other backgrounds and feel anxious about the integration of different communities.”

It is precisely the desire to raise public awareness regarding this indispensable contribution that has led Babar Raja to found the Gul Mawaz Khan Memorial Foundation, dedicated to ‘promoting the memory of Muslim soldiers who bravely risked and sacrificed their lives fighting for Britain in great conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries.’ Gul Mawaz Khan was Babar Raja’s great grandfather, and his impact on World War One–and the course of history–was one of tremendous proportions. He was a cavalry officer, Britain’s only Muslim correspondent with King Hussein of Mecca. Khan was hand-picked from the battlefield in France for a most sensitive and important intelligence mission in Hejaz. As a Muslim, Khan was believed to have a far better understanding of Muslim sentiment with regards to the British and could successfully interact with his brothers in faith. He held a series of meetings with the Sharif of Mecca, King Hussein bin Ali, to discuss important aspects of the revolt on behalf of Britain and skilfully neutralised Muslim sentiment against the British–a decisive move that would lead to the success of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire and its subsequent demise. The King recognised his bravery, stating that Muslim soldiers like him were a ‘credit to the Empire’. Khan woefully never received his promised Military Cross, though, which was otherwise awarded to thousands of white officers. It is for this reason that Babar Raja has started a UK Foundation to honour Muslim war heroes. Similar campaigns have also sprung up, such as the Remember Togethercampaign and the Forgotten Heroes 14-19’s exhibition ‘Singularity of Peace’.

The concept for the Gul Mawaz Khan Memorial Foundation was years in the making before it was brought to fruition. Inspired by the stories recounted to Babar Raja and his brother throughout the years, stories of the bravery and integrity of their forefathers who, in Raja’s words, ‘exhibited the highest standards of both a Muslim and a human’, the Foundation was born from a ‘seed of legacy that grew generation after generation and eventually culminated in a strong urge to discover more about the services they rendered not only to the Crown, but to humanity at large.’

‘We felt as though we were receiving a strong message from the past to pick things up from where they were left off by our great grandfather,’ Raja says. ‘Gul Mawaz Khan always expressed deep concern for the respect, betterment and wellbeing of all soldiers and their families, irrespective of colour and creed. It was through researching about our great grandfather–sifting through family photographs, collections and the like–that we came across his legendary services, for he was not recognised as he should have been. We believe that his services during the Arab revolt may have been overlooked due to the classified nature of this information, which was only recently declassified. But we also discovered that there were numerous other soldiers who fought during WW1 and who were not even remembered. This paved the way for setting up a foundation to formally work for their recognition and remembrance.’

Muslims, Muslim soldiers, Indian soldiers, Gul Mawaz Khan Memorial Foundation, World War One, Great War
Indian soldiers arriving in France, World War One.

Raja hopes the Foundation will help Muslim families and communities, as well as the families of other veterans, to ‘reconnect with their history.’ He aims to help new generations understand the ‘sacrifices of those Muslims who risked their present in order to safeguard our today.’ He also intends to ‘support the British government in all its endeavours to educate the youth so as to establish a peaceful and cohesive society.’

At the core of the Foundation’s mission is the implicit understanding of the social divisions that plague British society, divisions that are fed through a misreading of the past and a fear of the future. Countering the far-right narrative, which posits a version of history in which Muslims have contributed nothing to British society, and that of extremist groups, who deny that Muslims can have any role at all in it, is essential–as is helping young Muslims at risk of alienation engage with British military history and thereby acquire a sense of belonging.

‘The feeling some Muslims may have of separateness from the main stream presently disturbs the harmony of our society. It is counterproductive. British society is multi-faith. We aim to help the descendants of veterans of all faiths become aware of how their ancestors fought side by side with Muslims for a common cause.’

Our mutual friend Madelaine Hanson speaks of her own contribution to the project as researcher:

I love researching this topic. Going through the historical records is truly magical. Every page is a direct connection to another human. Babar is so passionate about his family story. In a world as divided as it is today, remembering the conviction and integrity of these men is an honour and a privilege. As a British woman myself, and a descendent of immigrants who fought for Britain, I strongly believe that we need to make sure this history is preserved and passed on. We are all the products of the innovation, love and bravery of our ancestors. We should recognise them whatever their religion, gender or race.

Their enthusiasm for the Foundation is truly contagious. I feel, however, that it is necessary to also pose more delicate questions, to address potential problematic aspects. The glorification of Muslims insofar as they allied themselves alongside the British, often the colonisers or occupiers of their lands, is not without its fair share of criticism. I ask Babar what he makes of this.

‘Both soldiers and civilians had the common goal of establishing an independent country,’ Babar explains, ‘but this was likely to be achieved through a process of dialogue between the forces of Britain and India. Muslims soldiers who allied themselves with the British army performed a great strategic duty by simultaneously fighting aggressors and paving the way for an independent state. They did this because, if under any circumstances Britain had been defeated by the Nazis, it would have resulted in devastation for humanity as a whole–and it would have ruined any prospects for independence.’

Babar aims to fund historical research with the objective of bringing to light the sacrifices of Muslim soldiers so that they may be recognised in practical terms. He also hopes, however, to educate new generations on the devastating effects of the Great War and the price humanity has paid. The highest form of respect we may pay to the memory of those who lost their lives in war is to never repeat its atrocities at all.

Sarah Mills is a managing editor and writer at Conatus News.

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