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Armistice Day: Muslim contribution to British war effort remembered

Armistice Day marked in Trafalgar Square London [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 November, 2016

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Newly discovered letters reveal the experiences of some of the hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers who defended Britain on the front lines during both world wars.
In an age where Muslims face growing hostility as a result of the atrocities commited in Islam's name, from the ultra-hardline interpretation of the Islamic State group, to terror attacks in Europe and the US, the contribution of millions of Muslims fighting for Britain during the two world wars is important to remember this Armistice Day.

More than 3.5 million Muslims from the Asian subcontinent defended the nation, with tens of thousands killed in battle.

Around 2.5 million of these men and women who came to the UK to do their bit during their Second World War made up the biggest volunteer force in history.

During the First World War, more than one million Muslim troops in the Indian Army fought on the Western Front. More than 47,000 died and 65,000 were wounded.

New personal letters from some of those soldiers have been discovered by an academic at Birmingham City University, revealing how their experiences of England compared to their home nation.

One soldier, Mr A Ali, wrote of his first experience of a department store and the Tube network.

"We visited a shop where 2,000 men and women were working and everything can be bought. There is no need of asking as the price is written on everything," he wrote.

"Then we went in the train that goes under the earth, it was for us a strange and wonderful experience - they call it the underground train."

In the letter dating back to 1915, Mr Ali prasied the police and the respect they demand.

"If one policeman raises his hand every single person in that direction rich and poor alike, stands still where he is as long as his hand is raised."

Another letter, written by Abdul Said, compared butcher's shops in Britain to those in India.

"Every shop in this country is so arranged that one is delighted to look at them. Whether you buy much or little it is properly wrapped up, and if you tell the shop man to send it to your house you have only to give him your address and he delivers it," Mr Said wrote in 1915.

"The butcher's shops in Hindustan are very dirty, but here they are so clean and tidy that there is absolutely no smell."

Dr Islam Issa, a lecturer in English Literature, discovered the letters.

"When I decided to look at soldiers' letters, I expected a very bleak outlook on the war. Of course, sometimes, that's exactly what I found. But quite often, the letters were about individual experiences and very normal, human things," Dr Issa told the Independent.

"Whatever your ideology or stance, you end up realising that these Muslim soldiers were individual humans and as a result, they were making sacrifices at that individual, human level," he added.

The letters feature in a Stories of Sacrifice exhibition commissioned by the British Muslim Heritage Centre in Manchester.

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