30 June 2016

From the Somme to Sangin – a century of Muslim service to Britain

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‘Our Iftar is more than a friendly gathering – it is a powerful act of unity,” said Defence Minister Lord Earl Howe, addressing the mixed audience, Muslim and non-Muslim, military and civilian, gathered at a special Armed Forces Iftar last night to remember the service of Muslim soldiers in the armed forces stretching back over 100 years to the Somme.

somme 200 x 200It was, writes Steve Ballinger,  my first Iftar. This one was a little different to those taking place all over Britain, as Muslims break their fast at the end of the day during the festival of Ramadan. We were at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall; and Lord Earl Howe was joined by senior armed forces personnel, Muslim servicemen and women, guests of all faiths and (like me) of none. Bringing together people of different backgrounds at this event felt all the more important, set as it was against a backdrop of vile attacks on migrants and ethnic minorities by a minority in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the EU.

The need for unity was highlighted by Julie Siddiqui of The Big Iftar. Speaking of the inspiration she has derived from the bridge-building community activism of the late Jo Cox MP, she said that staying silent was not enough. We must all be active, she reminded us, in our call for peace and reconciliation. And we must not to allow hatred to divide us. “Extremists at both ends of the scale,” added Julie, “wish we weren’t doing this – they say that Muslims can’t serve Britain or be part of it.”

It was that history of Muslim service to Britain, dating to the First World War and the Battle of the Somme 100 years ago this Friday, that we had gathered to commemorate. This little-known story was brought to life at the event by historian Andrew Wren as he described how the soldiers of pre-partition India held the front line in Europe in 1914.

And there was a poignant reminder that those sacrifices are not confined to the distant past. Lord Earl Howe presented an award to the family of Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi, the first British Muslim soldier killed in action in Afghanistan ten years ago this Friday.

The Defence Minister said:

“Jabron Hashmi made the ultimate contribution to Britain. Proud to be both British and Muslim, his service is an example to all of us, of all faiths and none, that we must each play a part in protecting our country and its values. For most of us that’s not so difficult – it just means doing our jobs, respecting the law and getting along with our neighbours. But Jabron Hashmi was prepared to make a much greater sacrifice for the sake of his country – and as we approach the centenary of the Somme, today we remember the 400,000 Muslim soldiers who fought for Britain on the Western Front and in many other battles of the First World War.”

Jabron’s sister Zoubia remained strong and composed as she spoke of her brother’s bravery and her family’s loss, describing a young man who was as committed to his country and role as a soldier as he was to his faith:

“Jabron was proud to be British, proud to be a soldier, and proud to be Muslim. A deeply spiritual and thinking man, he was conscious of the debates surrounding his religion, ethnicity and nationality, but never wavered in his conviction that our strength as a country comes in our diversity, not our differences. Our pain in this loss is shared by all those who have lost loved ones in war, from all faiths and creeds. Today we remember not only Jabron’s sacrifice but also his conviction that our shared humanity is our strongest weapon against prejudice.”

Around one and a half million soldiers from pre-partition India – including 400,000 Muslims – fought side by side for Britain in the Great War of 1914-18, including at the Battle of the Somme. Public awareness of this shared history of bravery and sacrifice is gradually increasing, including among Britain’s South Asian communities themselves.

The event was part of the Unknown and Untold project from British Future and New Horizons in British Islam, which seeks to raise awareness of our shared history and explore its relevance to contemporary questions of identity and integration today.

My colleague Avaes Mohammed set out why this sense of shared history is so important as Britain seeks to heal its divisions.

“Jabron Hashmi’s story shows that the legacy of the Muslim soldiers who fought on the Western Front continues today – it isn’t just confined to history,” he said. “And black or white, Muslim or Christian, Leave or Remain, on Friday we will all remember the Somme, together.”

More information at: http://ww1muslimsoldiers.org.uk/

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