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The Poppy Belongs to Muslims Too

by Umar Mahmood

*Umar Mahmood is a young British Muslim, working to build bridges between faith and statutory bodies. His upcoming event “Faith in Politics” is being arranged for Interfaith Week and Parliament Week 2018 on 13 November 2018. He tweets @faith_tweeting

I was only 15 when I was on the receiving end of a racist rant in the run up to Remembrance Sunday: “you Muslims haven’t earned the right to be in this country because none of your lot fought alongside us” one said, while the other shouted out “take that poppy off, you have no right to wear it”. I wore the poppy out of respect for those who lost their lives and were part and parcel of the tragedy. Drinks in hand, they continued to mock my show of respect.

My Grandfather, Muhammad Shafi Qureshi, was a Prisoner of War, held for four years by the Japanese.

My Grandfather and Great Grandfather, both hailing from the Indian subcontinent now known as Pakistan, both fought in WWI and WWII respectively. My Grandfather was recognised for his services by the British Army some years before he passed away. Very little is known by the general public about the role played by the global Muslim community, especially in Britain’s first world war. Indeed, the Muslim community to some extent is still unclear about how many Muslims actually took part. The far right has also tried to take this important aspect away from Muslims by saying we hate the poppy or have not respect for it; unfortunately, many are falling into their trap.

As a young Muslim, I know that we have respect for those who have kept us safe and put their lives on the line. I feel that it provides a much-needed bridge for dialogue for all communities that will serve to bring greater understanding on all sides. It will not only dampen the far right’s attempts at erasing the contribution of Muslims and Islamophobic prejudice as well as helping young Muslims to understand that they too have a role in British history of great import. It is vital that we mark such a significant annual occasion of commemoration, which people of all faiths and backgrounds share.

For me, the fact that my forefathers served in the British Indian Army is a matter of pride. Muslims from Algeria, Tunisia, America, Russia, Egypt, China and Africa worked and fought for the Allied Forces. The Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation have estimated that around 2.5 million Muslims contributed to the allied cause, with 400,000 being from the Indian subcontinent. The Muslims who lost their lives during the war are honoured in countries like France, with their headstones inscribed with Arabic and facing toward the holy city of Makkah. Many Muslim soldiers fought for the British Army and the safety of British Empire. They believed in defending our great country and its people.

For the Muslim youth, it will give them a sense of belonging in Britain and help them to appreciate their stake in this country.  From some of the stories I have read and heard, it is clear that the Muslim soldiers in particular did not find it difficult to balance their religion, culture and contribute to Britain at one of its most trying times. According to some reports, if a soldier was killed, they would go back to get the body back to bury it because of their religious and cultural traditions, despite being told not to go back to the battlefield. Muslim, Christian and Jewish soldiers fought united, side-by-side; sharing their experiences and benefting from each other’s cultures. European soldiers were picking up natural medicines and learning a variety of treatments from their Muslim counterparts.

In today’s world, it seems as if all we are being told is that religion, culture and British society are incompatible. In fact, it could not be further from the truth. The Quran teaches us time and again to learn from history and the people that came before us. We can all learn from history: Britain welcomed people from all backgrounds and their culture became part and parcel of British society. Multiple identities can coexist without hampering the other; I am proud to say that I am Muslim, English, British, European and Pakistani. It is vitally important that we build bridges between faith and statutory bodies, such as the military, Met Police, Parliament, local authority etc. so that it can be more representative of British society. It is this understanding that will serve to bring us together. Faith has a role to play in making society better.

I believe that we as Muslims need to get involved as much as possible in the commemoration and remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives to fight against extremism and hate. It is said that the first person to take an action and shoot against the Nazis was a Muslim. So, if like me, a young Muslim hears “what have the Muslims ever done for us” or “get out of our country”, just remember, Muslims have put in just as much effort to keep the British empire, and indeed the world, safe from extremists.

Through my work with Forum for International Relations Development, I have helped to link Muslim leaders with Remembrance Sunday events organised by various community groups, to represent the Muslim faith. They will be praying for the dearly departed. I have also urged imams and Muslim scholars to speak about Remembrance Sunday during their Friday prayer speeches. We must now allow the far-right extremists to hijack the poppy and keep us away from it.

The poppy belongs to the Muslims too, just as much as it does to any other faith group or nation. We will own it and pay our respects to the men and women involved. Not to do so, would be a great disservice to all Muslims who sacrificed their lives. This Remembrance Sunday, at Stockwell Memorial Gardens (10.45 am) and Windrush Square (1.00 pm), I will wear the poppy to remember my Grandfather and Great Grandfather; who fought in the Wars and are heroes to me.

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