12 March 2024

A Muslim war memorial is long overdue


Jeremy Hunt opened his Budget by announcing £1m towards a national memorial to the 750,000 Muslims who fought for Britain in the world wars. Reflecting on the ‘tragic loss of life in Israel and Gaza’ and the ‘need to fight extremism and heal divisions’, the Chancellor said Britain would honour those who died ‘in the service of freedom and democracy’, whatever their ‘faith or colour or class’. 

Watching Hunt, I found his sentiments admirable, but unremarkable. After all, £1m is a trifle among the rest of his other boondoggles. Yet his decision has provoked a backlash from some on the right. Conservative MPs have questioned whether a memorial commemorating the contribution of a single religion is appropriate, let alone whether it should have been announced in a Budget. 

One Tory MP is reported to have told the Treasury WhatsApp group ‘when soldiers die at war they die for their country, irrespective of religion’. To single out a single rank, race, or religion is to ‘reinforce division’, suggested another. They pointed towards the plain white headstones of First World War soldiers designed by Edwin Lutyens as an example of dignified uniformity a memorial should require. 

Criticisms have been even more strident among the online right. Coming so soon after George Galloway’s Rochdale victory, amid post-October 7th concerns about British Muslims, antisemitism, and Islamism, the suggestion has been that a government fearful of extremism is aiming to ‘appease’ British Muslims. The timing at least seems suspect, within days of Rishi Sunak’s Number 10 speech. 

I think these criticisms are wrong on each count. Budgets are a bit of a farce. They exist only to give us hacks something to fret about for a week. The £1m for the war memorial was dwarfed by liberal bungs of pre-election bribes spent elsewhere. Opening with the announcement provided a moment of solemnity before the name-checks, dad jokes, and empty pledges to lower the tax burden. 

On the more serious charges of divisiveness and timing, a quick Google proves both carry little weight. War memorials abound honouring the war dead of particular faiths. A memorial to Catholics who died in the world wars and the Korean War can be found in Westminster Cathedral. The Chattri memorial near Brighton is dedicated to Hindu and Sikh soldiers who fought and died in the First World War. 

Sikh memorials are also in Wolverhampton, Leicester, and the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. This is the Muslim memorial’s intended home. Opened in 2001, it aims to honour the dead and engender pride in the Armed Forces. It contains memorials to the Commandos, those who died working on the Sumatra and Burma railways, and those who were Shot at Dawn, amongst others. 

One of its memorials is dedicated to Jewish servicemen and women killed on duty. Indeed, the more one learns of the sheer number of memorials to different faiths or particular groups that we have, the lack of a memorial to Muslims appears as a glaring exception. Nearly 5.5m Muslims fought for the Allies during the Second World War, of whom nearly 1.5m were killed in action. 

Hailing from the Indian subcontinent, North Africa, and the Middle East, Muslims fought across three continents, with an especial contribution from the British Indian Army that fought the Japanese in the Far East Campaign. Whilst the exact number of Muslim casualties is unknown, they formed around 1m of the 2.5m strong British Indian Army, of whom 87,000 died.

It’s no surprise if British readers haven’t hitherto heard of their contribution. British Future research found only 1 in 5 Brits knew about the Muslim contribution to the First World War. Only 2% were aware of the contribution from the more than 400,000 Muslim soldiers. As a history lesson alone, a public recognition of the Muslim service in both world wars is long overdue. 

The World Wars Muslim Memorial Trust which has campaigned for a memorial began its work in 2015, inspired by Irfan Malik, a GP whose great-grandparents had fought for Britain, and Tazi Husain, a retired NHS consultant surgeon. Both men felt that the contribution from Muslim soldiers had been overlooked in the First World War centenary commemorations. They quickly attracted high-profile support.  

Last year, the Arboretum’s Landscapes and Memorials Committee granted permission for the Trust’s proposals, subject to funding and a final design. Sajid Javid, the ex-Chancellor, called for the required £1m last month. As so often in politics, the delivery of the money was driven less by external circumstances, but by who was able to ask a favour from whom. 

What of the suggestion that, by announcing the funding now, the Government is ‘appeasing’ extremism amongst British Muslims? I do not doubt Islamism’s persistent and profound threat. Nor can I hide my concern that some British Muslims seem to conflate opposition to Israel’s actions in Gaza with something approaching support for Hamas. Some undoubtedly hold deeply concerning views. 

But tarnishing all British Muslims with the abhorrent views of a minority is grotesque. It feeds the condescending and alienating left-wing narrative that Britian is uniquely hostile towards Muslims. It ignores the fact that most British Muslims are proud of their country. As Rakib Eshan highlights, 86% of British Muslims think Britain is a good place to live, with 83% thinking it is better than Europe.

If right-wingers view British Muslims only through the lens of extremism, they lose sight of the silent, tolerant, and integrated majority just as readily as those on the left who talk of Muslims only via victimhood and oppression. It feeds a sense of us and them, and tacitly denies Muslims can be fully British. Not only is that ludicrous and wrong, but it does the hideous work of the Islamists for them.  

It also proves the need for this memorial. Managing the consequences of multiculturalism is an existential challenge for modern Britain. But any effort is doomed to failure without encouraging a common patriotism. Honouring our Muslim war dead pays tribute to those who thought Britain was worth fighting and dying for. It’s a sentiment many on the right would do well to remember today. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.