Avaes Mohammad is a playwright and poet with a doctorate in chemistry. He works with British Future.
It wasn’t just the buglers heralding the arrival of HRH The Earl of Essex, nor all the decorated army personnel pristinely scattered about the place; it wasn’t even the autumnal Surrey woodland in the midst of which we were all gathered that morning. Rather it was the garden itself, refurbished by Woking Council upon a site once used to bury Indian Muslims who fought for Britain in the First World War, that emanated a distinctly comfortable English Islam.
Maintaining the original domed entrance and miniature minarets on each walled corner, the ground itself had just been transformed into an Islamic-inspired peace garden with a design obviously reminiscent of the famed Mughal gardens of South Asia, yet for it to flourish and blossom on English soil of course the fig and pomegranate trees have been replaced by birch and yews. Evergreen Christmas boxes and climbing roses line the perimeter and a flawless lawn works to accent the sacred geometry. The result of which is a memorial that succeeds not only in honouring all 400,000 Indian Muslims who fought for Britain in the Great War, but also one that stands to symbolise a very English Islam today. This confluence of English and Islamic styles blend effortlessly in the Woking Muslim Burial Site Garden, creating a space in harmony with the woodland in which it resides; a very English, Islamic oasis.
And in so many ways, very appropriately so. After all, only a few hundred yards away from it stands the oldest purpose built mosque in Britain. It’s perhaps the most beautiful too, built in 1889 with Bath and Bargate stone in a striking Indo-Saracenic style. Spending the day between both these sites and discovering the long legacy of Muslims in the town, it struck me that perhaps I was standing in what could justifiably be considered the capital of English Islam.
I was invited to the opening event of the garden in my capacity as co-ordinator of a new project, Unknown and Untold: The Story of Britain’s WW1 Muslim Soldiers. A collaborative venture between thinktank British Future and New Horizons in British Islam, this nationally-based project seeks to increase public awareness of the 400,000 Indian Muslims who fought for Britain in the First World War across theatres of battle that ranged from the trenches of France to the deserts of Mesopotamia.
As interesting as this knowledge is, however, like the garden its contemporary significance is what marks its real importance. In Birmingham, for example, we’re engaging a Muslim youth group of British Bangladeshis and British Pakistanis, alongside a Non-Muslim youth group comprising White Britons and British Afro-Caribbeans. This story has been received with rapt and eager acceptance – no mean feat considering most of the audience were giving up an evening of ping-pong with their mates – helping develop a sense of identity broad enough to be felt by everyone in the room. “Yeah I do feel more British now than I did this morning,” confirmed one British Pakistani young person, “knowing that my ancestors fought for this country and we were British even before we came here.”
But it’s not just working class youth from the streets of Birmingham who found this story useful. Recently I delivered a seminar at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst to the officers of tomorrow, talking to them about the contribution of Indian Muslim soldiers to Britain. Focusing on the First World War, the officer cadets discovered an army from a hundred years ago that looked more like the Britain of today than our contemporary armed forces. And within this incredible diversity – a key strength of the British Armed Forces historically – they discovered Muslims who voluntarily made the ultimate sacrifice for this country, with several even earning that most coveted and exclusive of military decorations, the Victoria Cross.
Remembrance has proved particularly important to the British people over this centenary period. Sacrifices made for the culture we all enjoy today have been commemorated with respect and dignity. Recent research from British Future shows that behind this public feeling there is a common desire for increased understanding between communities and an acknowledgement that remembrance brings communities together. Now, more than ever before, the narrative of commemoration needs to acknowledge and accommodate all those who served this country, including the 400,000 Indian Muslims who were prepared to pay the ultimate price for it. Doing so tells the story of how Britain and Islam have co-existed and interacted over history.
Of course, the serenity of the Woking Peace Garden is very distant from the chaos and murder on the streets of Paris recently. Telling the stories of Indian Muslims fighting for Britain a hundred years ago can’t in itself be enough to heal the damage done by abusers of faith and humanity.
But perhaps it can play an important role in building a common, united front against them – a sense of shared history, identity and belonging across modern Britons of different faiths and backgrounds. Those who would tear our society apart have a narrow, perverted narrative of incompatibility between British and Islamic culture, both historically and today.
Each time we come together – as neighbours, as workmates or to remember our past – we show them that they are wrong; that we will not be divided.