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American documentary celebrates a Muslim WWII heroine

It is the story of an unlikely war hero; a Muslim woman, in her late twenties, who sacrificed her life as a British secret agent

Nabila Pathan

Published: Updated:

It was the story of an unlikely war hero; a Muslim woman, in her late twenties, who sacrificed her life as a British secret agent that caught the attention of Executive Film Producers Alex Kronemer and Michael Wolfe. Five years on and the story of Noor Inayet Khan has been made into 60 minute docudrama film by Unity Productions Foundation (UPF). The film “Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayet Khan Story” has already premiered across several cities in the U.S. over the past few months and this week it crossed the Atlantic and was premiered in London at the Tricycle Theatre.

The story, re-told through the narration of Academy Award winning actor Helen Mirren and including interviews with experts and reenactments starring Grace Srinivasan, will be broadcast nationwide in the U.S. on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) on September 9 this year.

Depictions of Muslims

Speaking to Al Arabiya News, Alex Kronemer explains that there are: “literally thousands of movies and documentaries about WWII and that seldom do we see Muslims depicted in any context.” In their search, for unsung WWII Muslim heroes, they stumbled on multiple stories of Muslims who provided shelter to Jews or supported allied forces. The story of the first female radio operator of Indian and American heritage, sent into Nazi-occupied France, was particularly alluring because of the “inclusive humanity” she represented.

In order to remain authentic in the depiction of the Noor Inayat Khan character, Kronemer and his team meticulously consulted with most published books relating to Noor and had access to many private letters, journal entries, and other documents. Kronemer goes on to explain: “We engaged an international group of scholars and two family members as we further researched her life and this story. We took a particular focus on Noor’s spiritual life, and looked at how her father’s religious and spiritual teachings that had a big impact on her later life.”

Stumbling on difficulty

But in accessing records from the French authorities, the team stumbled on difficulty as Michael Wolfe explains in an interview with ToledoFavs: “The French activities during the Second World War are shameful — and they are ashamed of it even today...they don’t like to discuss the subject much … because the French government essentially collaborated with the Germans.”

Noor’s decision to join the war effort is all the more intriguing given that she was raised in a pacifist Sufi household. Khan’s father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was one of the leading spiritual figures of Sufi Islam across Europe and in 1914 being the founder a Sufi order in London. According to Wolfe: “In the 1910s and 1020s, Western philosophers and politicians and historians and many other educated people were looking for answers outside the Western tradition. There was an idea that the Western tradition was in need of rejuvenation, of cross-pollination, and there was a great influx of teaching and practices from India.”

Whilst the contributions of many Arab and Indian fighters during World War II remains limited in the public domain, the story of Noor Inayet Khan is one of the few if not, the only, to have gained traction in recent years. The largest volunteer force in history to support the efforts of WWII were composed of 2.5 million men and women from the Asian subcontinent.

Noor’s story

In September 1944, Noor was executed at the age of 30 in the Dachau concentration camp, Germany. Her final word to be recorded before she was killed by firing squad was “Liberte.” For her bravery, she was posthumously awarded the George Cross in in 1949. Recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron commended Noor for her “bravery,” “indomitable courage” and “inspirational self-sacrifice.” Earlier this year, the Royal Mail commemorated her achievements by featuring her portrait on first class stamps.

When the docudrama airs on national television in the U.S., the story of Noor Inayet Khan will potentially reach an audience of millions, many of whom would have not previously known of the war heroine. For the filmmakers, the release of the film comes at an important time when mistrust of Muslims and Islamophobia is a heightened issue across America and the use of storytelling is an important tool to help build understanding of differences. Following the national broadcast, the film will be made available for grassroots dialogues that promote interfaith understanding.