Introduction: The Islamic View on the Nation State
We hear a lot from British Muslims, and sometimes from non-Muslims, of the ‘Muslim contribution to British forces during both World Wars’. However, when you look into this, it’s not quite clear how big that contribution actually was or why, exactly, Muslims were fighting ‘for us’.
It's not a surprise either that not many Muslims actually fought for the British; or that when they did, they did so for reasons other than loyalty to the British Empire and Commonwealth. You would hardly expect anything else from Muslims.
Islam, officially and theologically at least, is against all patriotism and nationalism. Muslims, after all, ‘should fight for the Ummah; not for the nation state’. Why do I say this? I say this because very many Muslims themselves say this. It’s certainly not a case of me distorting the views of otherwise loyal and patriotic British Muslims or those of the Empire/Commonwealth in former years. I’m simply reiterating what Muslims say and indeed what Islam itself states.
So what about numbers? Take this headline from Metro (‘the free newspaper’):
That sounds pretty positive and conclusive doesn’t it? However, read what follows and see if you spot anything:
“More than 3.5million soldiers from the Asian subcontinent fought for Britain in the two conflicts, with tens of thousands killed in action.”
Yes, that’s right. We have very quickly moved from ‘Muslims’ to ‘Asian’. It’s obvious that those ‘3.5 million soldiers from the Asian subcontinent’ weren't all Muslims. How could they have been – they were a minority in that ‘subcontinent’ at that time. We are basically talking here about the British Indian Army, of which the vast majority were non-Muslims (mainly Hindus but also Sikhs).
The same thing happens in this article when the focus is on the First World War. Muslims are mentioned again, but the numbers refer specifically to ‘the Indian army’ as a whole. Metro tells us:
“During World War I, Muslim troops in the Indian Army fought on the Western Front. By the end of the Great War, India had sent more than 1million troops. More than 47,000 died and 65,000 were wounded.”
It’s clear that of those ‘1 million troops in the Indian army’, very few of them would have been Muslims. Nonetheless, would the average reader have thought that while reading this?
Yet again the same thing happens with references to the Second World War. Here Metro is talking about the Indian army and not specifically about Muslims:
“In World War II, 2.5million men and women fought for Britain, with 36,092 killed, 64,354 wounded and almost 80,000 were taken prisoner.”
In fact in the entire Metro article there is not a single reference to the number of Muslims who fought in the British-Indian Army in both wars. So all the Metro article is really about - despite the title and the references to 'Muslims' - is the British Indian Army contribution to both World Wars; it’s not really about Muslims at all.
This is another example of not racists or the ‘far right’, but Islamophiles (as it were) conflating Muslims with Asians, as they always do when it comes to Muslim grooming and suchlike. It seems that positive generalisations and conflations towards - and about - Muslims are fine; it’s only the negative ones which are bad.
You would expect the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) to be more specific about the issue of the ‘Muslim contribution to the two World Wars’. However, it too does exactly what Metro does. It starts off talking about the Muslim contribution to both wars and then quickly starts talking about the ‘2.5 million soldiers of the Indian Army’ in World War Two. The same is true about the First World War. It was one million Indian soldiers, not Muslims, who fought in that war. And the same is true about the number of deaths the MCB cites – 47,000. That is 47,000 British-Indian Army deaths, not Muslim deaths.
In fact, in both the Metro and the MCB article, there are no numbers given of either Muslim contributors or Muslim deaths; all numbers refer specifically to the British Indian Army as a whole.
The first thing we need to realise is that in 1914, the beginning of the First World War, there were hardly any Muslim or Islamic states outside the Ottoman Empire. So, in a sense, if Muslims fought on anyone’s side, it was either on the side of a non-Muslim state or on the side of the Ottoman Empire. The same is true of the Second World War, though less so (when the Ottoman Empire no longer existed). Muslim soldiers had no choice but to fight ‘for us’ in the British Indian Army - other than not be soldiers at all.
*) In any case, not all Indian Muslims fought on the British side anyway. Take the Indische Freiwilligen Infanterie Regiment 950, which was created in August 1942 (attached to the Waffen-SS in 1944), chiefly from disaffected Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army. They fought against the British during World War Two.
Why Did Muslims Fight For Us?
Muslims in the British Indian Army
We get slightly more subtlety in an article by Inayat Bunglawala (who’s also a spokesman for the MCB). The publicity-purpose of this article is to show British non-Muslims that Muslims fought for the British Empire/Commonwealth in both world wars. It even attempts to show us they were proud members of that Commonwealth and that they, implicitly, died for us. (Bunglawala does mention the number of 400,000 Muslims who fought in World War One.)
When Inayat Bunglawala also talks about the Muslims who fought for us, it may sound to some as if he’s talking about British Muslims; but he can’t be. There were virtually no Muslims in the UK in 1914 and not many more in 1939. Again, he’s talking about Muslims in the British Indian Army.
Yet he sort of gives the game away in a passage about World War One and British ‘promises’ to Muslims about Palestine, Iraq and Syria.
Firstly he tells us about the Muslims soldiers who fought in World War One (again, as part of the British Indian Army) on the British side. Yet he says this:
“You can't help but wonder how these very same [Muslim] soldiers – who it should be recalled were consciously fighting on the opposite side to that of [Muslim] Ottoman Turkey – would have reacted had they known that just a few months later in November 1917 Britain would issue the now infamous Balfour Declaration viewing ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ and that immediately following the end of the first world war, Britain and France would renege on their promises to the Arabs and deny independence to the people of Iraq and Syria.”
There is a strong hint here (more than a hint!), from Bunglawala, that if Muslims had known about what would happen after the war, as regards Palestine, Iraq and Syria, then they wouldn’t have fought on the British side in the first place. Alternatively, perhaps it’s best to say that Bunglawala is saying that they shouldn’t have fought on our side had they pre-cognisance of their ‘betrayal’ by the British. Clearly Bunglawala is saying here that loyalty to fellow Muslims, and to Islam, is far more important than loyalty to the British Empire/Commonwealth or the British state itself. Yet the ostensible message of his article is supposed to be otherwise - with its hint at Muslim loyalty to the Britain and even, Allah forbid, patriotism.
It is clear that the vast majority of Muslims in the British Indian Army fought on our side specifically and exclusively because the British Government had promised them a ‘Muslim state’; which was to be separated from India at some point after the war (after 1945).
The first manoeuvre was to get the British to accept the existence and legitimacy of the Muslim League as being the sole representative of India’s Muslims.
As early as February 1940 (that is just one year into World War Two; but calls for a 'Muslim state' go back before that), Jinnah and the Muslim League were agitating for a Muslim state. On 6 February, 1940, Jinnah informed the Viceroy that the Muslim League would be demanding partition instead of the federation contemplated in an earlier Act (1935). In fact the Lahore Resolution, for Muslim separation, was passed in Lahore on 23 March 1940.
When Winston Churchill became the British prime minister, in 1940, Britain again listened to the Muslim League’s demands. Specifically, Stafford Cripps gave some Indian provinces a ‘local option’ to remain outside of an Indian central government either for a period of time or permanently. India’s Congress rejected this. Nonetheless, Jinnah and the Muslim League saw the Cripps’ proposal as recognising a Muslim state.
Later, in 1944 (a year before the end of the war), Jinnah warned against the threat of Hindu domination and maintained his demand for a Muslim state. In September of that year, Jinnah insisted on Pakistan being conceded prior to the British departure, and that it should come into being immediately on their departure.
Interestingly, Just as Indian Muslims in the British Indian Army fought on our side in order to secure a Muslim state (Pakistan), so Arab Muslim fought for the British in the First World War in order to secure them an Arab state which would encompass the Arabian peninsula, Iraq and Syria (which later became Saudi Arabia).
Specifically, in 1916, with the encouragement and support of Britain (which was fighting the Ottoman Turks in World War One), the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, led a pan-Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire to create a united Arab state. Although the Arab Revolt of 1916 to 1918 failed in its objective, the Allied victory in World War I still resulted in the end of Ottoman suzerainty and control in Arabia.
Once we move away from the British Indian Army prior to 1945 (which is what most of these claims about Muslims ‘fighting for us’ are about), we find a very different picture.
Apart from the short time in which Arabs fought for us in World War One (to secure an Arab state or even an empire as well as to destroy the Ottoman ‘Islamic hegemony’ and give it back to the Arabs), most Arabs, in both World Wars, as well as in between these wars, were against the British and very few fought for the British and the Allies. In fact it was quite the opposite.
In Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Egypt, Transjordan/Jordan, Palestine, etc. not only were there very many allies of the German National Socialists, but also many actual Nazi groups and leaders. (Many people will already know about the Bosnian Muslims and the Palestinian Mufti.) In fact the German Nazis even opened up various ‘labour camps’ for Jews in North African countries. In addition, there was a lot of collaboration between German Nazis and Islamist Nazis in that part of the world. (And it wasn’t just all down to their mutual hatred of Jews.)
Of course there were exceptions to all this. There are always exceptions. For example, a few Arabs saved the lives of Jews in Tunisia and perhaps elsewhere as well. (Did they do so because of Islam or in spite of it?) In addition, there was an Arab Legion in Transjordan/Jordan which fought on the side of Britain and the Allies. (Though in WW2 the Legion only numbered around 1,600 men!) Nevertheless, the broad thrust of Arab Muslim loyalties was away from the British and its allies and towards the Germans and the Axis. And that loyalty towards the Nazis was certainly not all about war or realpolitik; it was also about shared ideologies and shared political views.