Given that there are only 3,800 Muslims in Northern Ireland, 0.2% of the population in the 2011 census, Belfast might not seem the most obvious place in which to engage local communities with the story of the 400,000 Indian Muslims who fought for Britain in the First World War.  Yet Belfast is a place where identities are forged and reformed on the anvil of history.  While these claims have typically maintained division, since the peace process various initiatives have also helped people develop a common identity, reaching beyond historic fault lines.

Efforts in Northern Ireland to bring Catholic and Protestant communities together, through the narrative of shared WW1 service, have been particularly notable. The First World War has historically been used to entrench division in Northern Ireland, whether representing the formal launch of an independent Irish Republic or symbolising historic allegiance to Britain.  Yet Professor Richard Grayson’s acclaimed Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War and Philip Orr’s The Road to The Somme, both of which tell of the joint service and sacrifice across sectarian divides, have shown how history can be successfully revisited to help shape a contemporary identity that can be inclusive for all. Based on these existing efforts, could acknowledging the contribution of Indian soldiers also have a similar effect?

While constituting such a small percentage of the local population, Muslims in Belfast have been subjected to disproportionate levels of prejudice. Last year the PSNI reported that Northern Ireland sees three racially-motivated incidents or crimes every single day, almost as many as sectarian incidents.  A significant number of Muslims here work as medical professionals providing healthcare to local communities: recent local news has made much of a caller proclaiming on a popular radio show that she’d rather die than be treated by a Muslim doctor.

In collaboration with the Mitchell Institute at Queen’s University, British Future and New Horizons in British Islam have been working with members of the local Muslim and Christian (mainly Loyalist) communities to collectively explore the heritage of the 400,000 Indian Muslims who fought for Britain in World War One.

An initial workshop to engage members of the Muslim community was held at the Mitchell Institute, attracting men and women from across the generations.  Although the story of contribution from the Muslims of undivided India was unknown to them, its use in developing a contemporary identity was met with some degree of suspicion.  For the Muslim participants, many of them first generation migrants with strong relationships with their countries of birth, this service also signified the sufferance of empire and explained the birth of conflicts that plague our world today:

The reason why the Middle East looks the way it does today is because of World War One, it’s because of Sykes Picot!  You can’t forget that when you look at the Middle East today.

At the same time, however, the Muslim participants also discussed how modern Britain has moved on from its imperial history. Their understanding of this heritage was complex and nuanced:

But today we do all live in Britain and colonialism doesn’t exist anymore.  Britain today isn’t the same as it was then and there is more equality now, more opportunity. Britain should then be judged for what it is today and our contributions be recognised.  Muslims, we’re still contributing, still today.”

A second workshop involving local Loyalists began with a quiz delivered by local historian and writer Philip Orr on the Empire’s role in the First World War.  For a community that prides itself upon knowledge of this subject, their poor performance spurred a desire to learn more.  Uncovering the scale of commonwealth contribution, and the significant Indian contribution in particular, was met with a general warmth and enthusiasm across the room.  Learning this shared heritage of deepened their knowledge of the Great War but also began broadening their understanding of what it means to be British.

A third workshop, bringing the two communities together, took us into uncharted territory: this was after all the first time Belfast’s Muslims had been encouraged to engage with local Loyalists on the basis of a common heritage.  As they gathered around the room each community gravitated towards opposite corners, with levels of mutual apprehension clearly palpable.  A presentation delivered by historian Jahan Mahmood expanded in more detail on the Muslim contribution to Britain in 1914-18, detailing famous Victoria Cross winners, their interactions with white soldiers and political ramifications like the Sykes-Picot agreement.

It was difficult at first to gauge how participants were reacting to this information, and indeed to this new context in which they found themselves. Yet as each individual was encouraged to introduce themselves and what they expected to gain from the evening, the room suddenly came together in shared surprise at the ‘other’s’ desire to engage and build bridges:

I’m here just because I want to show the true face of our community and to build alliances, relationships.’

I’m here because all I see about Muslims is the negative stuff on the news and I know all that can’t be true.  I’m a bit embarrassed to say but I don’t know any Muslims myself so I’ve decided to come out and meet you for myself.

A final presentation by Philip Orr told the personal story of his Great Uncle’s death during the war, humanising the collective suffering of all those who served, regardless of their backgrounds and the workshops ended with the two groups calling for further promotion of this shared heritage of service, so the breadth of what it means to be British might be better understood by all: ‘By all of us, and I mean all of us you know, not just one group, because we all need to know this’, as one participant declared. Both groups sought to take these new relationships forward, exchanging numbers and emails and inviting each other into their communities to strengthen these new ties.

When each group initially arrived they did so with preconceptions of the other – while at the same time being aware of preconceptions held about themselves. Witnessing the ‘other’ engage with a heritage close to their own, however, proved such a powerful experience that it moved people to want to know and understand each other better.

Exploring this shared heritage allowed participants to recognise their joint stake in Britain. It also created much-needed common ground on which these two communities, who otherwise know very little of one another, could come together on equal terms and discover more about each other. A shared heritage of service demonstrated a historic precedent of co-operation between the communities – and their presence in the room together demonstrated a willingness to do the same today. Once the presentations had been delivered, this historic narrative fast became secondary to the more pressing objective of developing relationships in the here and now. Shared heritage served merely as a door, providing the way in.

Learning to live together is often more difficult than learning to fight,” Professor Brewer of the Mitchell Institute told the group as he concluded the evening. We left with a strong sense that the people in the room that night, like their forebears, had what it takes to meet the challenge of their time.

Avaes Mohammad, Project coordinator for Unknown & Untold, British Future