One of the most fascinating stories of Muslims who participated in the first and second world wars is that of Noor Inayat Khan, a child psychologist and children’s book author.
Khan was recruited into Churchill’s covert Special Operations Executive, a significant and extremely risky position at the time. She was parachuted into France in June 1943 to help send messages from the French resistance to London.
While on the run, Khan, unaided, arranged the rescue of downed British and American pilots, and helped save countless Jewish lives. She was eventually captured by the Germans a few months later.
After months in captivity, she was executed by the German SS in Dachau in September 1944, aged 30, and was posthumously awarded the George Cross, as well as the Croix de Guerre by France. She was one of only three women in the SOE to be awarded the George Cross. The other two - Violette Szabo and Odette Hallowes - have had far more recognition, including films about their lives.
In November 2012, a statue was unveiled in London commemorating Khan as Britain’s only female Muslim war heroine became the first stand-alone memorial to an Asian woman in the UK.
Around 300 people are expected to attend the statue’s unveiling ceremony on 8 November, including veterans of both the SOE and Women’s Auxiliary Air force (WAF). War veteran Irene Warner, got to know Noor while they were both training in Edinburgh. “She was very quiet, very shy and often wore a nervous smile … she was very brave and certainly deserves some recognition.”
Campaigners spent years raising money for the statue, staging concerts by Talvin Singh and Anousha Shankar. Other support included a House of Commons early-day motion in June 2010, proposing that a statue be erected. It was signed by 34 MPs. The vice chancellor of the University of London also gave permission for the bust to be installed in Gordon Square.
A petition letter had argued for Gordon Square as an ideal location for the statue because “it is a place where many students and members of the public like to sit … the statue will be a timely reminder that we must not forget the principles of non-violence and religious harmony that Noor stood for, and for which she unhesitatingly sacrificed her life.”
Shrabani Basu, founder of the Noor Memorial Trust and author of her biography, Spy Princess, adds: “Noor’s house was also nearby and it is where she lived before setting off on her last mission. On her days off she used to sit in the square on a bench with a book on her lap.”
Noor, who was the daughter of Hazrat Inayat Khan, founder of the mystical Sufi Order of the West, was also a musician and poet.
Given Noor’s unique place in history, one really has to ask: what took people so long to honor her contribution?