ANZAC and the Muslims of the Empire

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Ottoman commanders during the Gallipoli Campaign (Image via Wikipedia)

Despite feelings of resentment present towards Muslims in the world today, many stood shoulder-to-shoulder with our troops, writes Bilal Cleland.

NEW ZEALAND, led by an outstanding Prime Minister, earned the respect of the world with its response to the Christchurch Massacre by a violent white supremacist from Australia.

The broadcasting of the azan to the world at the memorial service the Friday after the killing and the frequency with which Maori groups showed their respect for the Muslim community in Australia and New Zealand with their performance of the haka built strong bonds between the world Muslim community and New Zealand.

However, as in most societies, there is a racist and bigoted rump despite the overwhelming compassionate response of the nation.

When a NZ veteran of the Afghan war, a member of the Wellington Returned and Service Association, who was organising Anzac Day, suggested an Islamic prayer be performed at the dawn service, he received threats of violence.

One Facebook comment declared:

‘I feel that only the Christian prayer is appropriate for the dawn service.’

This attitude, while not a dominant attitude in New Zealand, reflects the attitude of many Europeans at the time of World War I.

‘Today on the Western Front,’ the German sociologist Max Weber wrote in September 1917, there ‘stands a dross of African and Asiatic savages and all the world’s rabble of thieves and lumpens.’

Weber was referring to the millions of Indian, African, Arab, Chinese and Vietnamese soldiers and labourers who were then fighting with British and French forces in Europe.

The death toll in the war was so great that the British recruited 1.4 million Indian soldiers and the French enlisted nearly 500,000 troops from its colonies in Africa and Indochina.

These non-European soldiers have remained nearly invisible in the European commemorations of the war.

‘Most accounts of the war uphold it as an essentially European affair: one in which the continent’s long peace is shattered by four years of carnage and a long tradition of western rationalism is perverted…’

This invisibility led the British Legion to issue a “thank you” to Commonwealth troops who served. The contribution of Muslims has been largely ignored so the British Legion pointed out about one-third of the British Indian Army, about 400,000 men, were Muslims.

Altogether about 885,000 Muslims fought for the allies in Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Europe.

Nearly 75,000 soldiers from the British Indian Army were killed in action.

Indian Army soldiers won 9,500 medals in the five main theatres of war including 11 Victoria Crosses — the supreme award for valour.

The Gallipoli Campaign was aimed at Ottoman Turkey, the Caliph of Islam and the taking of Istanbul.

Although there were rebellions amongst Indian troops against taking part in the fight, Singapore 1915 being an outstanding example, the British Indian Army was a volunteer army.

The Muslim world was in decline in the early 20th century, with nationalism and European imperialism at its height.

Many Arabs were also recruited to fight for national independence, which resulted in the Sykes-Picot betrayal, the Balfour Declaration and the elevation of puppet rulers across the Middle East.

While today we can see the results in the Middle East and Turkey of the French-British victory in 1918, it accelerated anti-imperialist movements in India and brought down the German, Austrian and Czarist Empires as well as the Ottomans. This terrible war also turned Japan into a menacing imperialist power in Asia, which brought Australia and New Zealand death and destruction 20 years later.

Bilal Cleland is a retired secondary teacher and was Secretary of the Islamic Council of Victoria, Chairman of the Muslim Welfare Board Victoria and Secretary of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils.

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