Arabs and Muslims in World War I

Increased awareness has political implications for Europe today because it can shape a different perception of Arabs and Muslims.
Sunday 18/11/2018
A Canadian soldier wearing a uniform dating to the First World War stands guard during a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One in Toronto, onNovember 11. (Reuters)
A Canadian soldier wearing a uniform dating to the First World War stands guard during a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One in Toronto, onNovember 11. (Reuters)

The celebration of the first 100 years since the end of World War I was an occasion for world leaders to get together in Paris. The anniversary also served as a moment to shed light on the unsung sacrifices of Arab and Muslim soldiers and labourers during the Great War.

It is estimated that up to 2.5 million Muslims took part in the global conflict. Muslim soldiers were from many regions, including Russia, North Africa, India and the United States.

Figures published by the Guardian show that 1.3 million Russian Muslims fought in the war as well as 400,000 Indians, who were part of the British Army. From modern-day Maghreb and East Africa, there were 200,000 Algerians, 100,000 Tunisians, 40,000 Moroccans and 5,000 Somalis and Libyans. There were 100,000 Muslim soldiers from West Africa, as well as 5,000 Muslim Americans.

Labourers included 130,000 from the Maghreb, 100,000 Egyptians, 200,000 sub-Saharan Africans, 40,000 Indians and 35,000 Chinese Muslims.

Working on archives from 19 countries, The Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation said the number of Muslims who took part in the war as soldiers or labourers could have been “more than 4 million.” The foundation is dedicated to highlighting the “Muslim Experience” during the war.

Unearthed archives show Muslim soldiers and labourers sharing — with comrades from other faiths and ethnic groups — the dangers of the battlefield as well as the unavoidable war consequences of injury and death. They also shared food and medicine, as well as occasional song and merriment.

Hayyan Ayaz Bhabha, executive director of the Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation said there is a lesson in that. “Chaplains, priests, rabbis and imams went out of their way to learn Arabic, Hebrew, English and French, in order to accommodate religious burials of the dead on the battlefront,” he said. Imams made sure fatally injured soldiers were able to recite the shahada (declaration of faith).

“If soldiers then could accept and accommodate each other in this way in the trenches during wartime, what’s stopping us from doing the same today?” Bhabha asked.

A survey conducted by the British Future organisation found that only 22% of the British public was aware of the role of Muslims in the war. To remedy the awareness issue, especially in British schools, the think-tank started a campaign, Remember Together.

Increased awareness has political implications for Europe today because it can shape a different perception of Arabs and Muslims. Luc Ferrier, a Belgian who is chairman of Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation, said: “Muslims are portrayed as the enemy within, that they are recent arrivals who have never made a valuable contribution to Europe but we can show that they have sacrificed their lives for a free Europe, have helped to make it what it is and that they have a right to be here.”

The sacrifices by Arab and Muslim soldiers in the Great War can offer more than a lesson on peace and coexistence for new young generations in Europe today.

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