Honoring Noor Inayat Khan on a fifty-pound note

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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The Bank of England is redesigning it’s Fifty Pounds note – the highest banknote denomination in the UK. In this centenary year of the woman’s vote, a campaign is thus underway to have a woman represented on the note other than the Queen.

And there are no shortages of amazing women who have made immense contribution to the UK and wider world who would fit the bill. However, with the rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and general intolerance, one name is getting more traction than others: Noor Inayat Khan – one of Winston Churchill’s band of elite spies during World War 2 who was captured, tortured and executed by the Nazis.


Khan has already been commemorated with a statue that was unveiled in her honor by the Princess Royal in 2012. This was followed by her appearance on a Royal Mail first class stamp in 2014. However, despite these important milestones, her remarkable story is still not widely known.

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The Sorbonne-educated child psychologist and children’s book author, Khan was recruited to one of the most dangerous positions within the intelligence world, Churchill’s covert Special Operations Executive.

Khan’s deep spirituality – influenced by her Sufi Muslim leader father – meant she believed in service for a greater good and couldn’t sit by while Hitler committed his atrocities.

Helping the French resistance, Khan evaded capture for four months, changing locations even while the Germans tracked her whereabouts. During that time, she helped to save Jewish lives as well as single-handedly arranging the rescue of downed British and American pilots, before being captured in October 1943 and executed a year later.

It’s no surprise that she received the highest honors for civilian service in war from both Great Britain and France. Former Prime Minister David Cameron praised her “inspirational self-sacrifice” and “indomitable courage.”

Khan’s deep spirituality – influenced by her Sufi Muslim leader father – meant she believed in service for a greater good and couldn’t sit by while Hitler committed his atrocities

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Portrayal of Muslims

As amazing as Noor Inayat Khan’s story is, however, hers is just one story. There are many others yet to tell, and many that have been ignored.

The media still struggles with its portrayal of Muslims, all too often reverting to stereotype, even when real-life roles include sacrifice, courage and loyalty. The contribution of Muslims to our war successes is also glossed over in classrooms and in many history books.

As Executive Producer of Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story, Michael Wolfe, told me, “There seems to be a tendency to forget that hundreds of thousands of volunteers from India joined the British forces. Many of them were Muslim, and were decorated and died in great numbers.

“There also seems to be a tendency to leave out of the narrative, the Algerians and the North Africans, all of who were Muslims and fought on the French side in the tens of thousands. In both cases, these were citizens of countries who were under colonial pressure from the very countries that they decided to serve. It was a moral and ethical choice [for them] to look past their agony to serve a higher purpose.”

Muslim Lifestyle magazine, Emel.com, points out that more than 161,000 Indian army soldiers were killed in both world wars, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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Forgotten Heroes — The Muslim Contribution, Issue 62 of Emel.com, recalls: “As Britain battled from the First World War to the Second, she became increasingly dependent on the Indian Army: the largest volunteer army in both World Wars, as men signed up to fight rather than being conscripted.”

Up to 40 percent of the Indian army were Muslim, even though they only made up about 25 percent of the Indian population. Winston Churchill summed up the Muslim contribution in his letter to US President Franklin Roosevelt. He wrote, “We must not on any account break with the Moslems, who represent a hundred million people, and the main army elements on which we must rely for the immediate fighting”.

How sad that our close heritage has been neglected in recent times.

Everyone fighting for freedom in those dark days deserves to be remembered, no matter what their religion. Doing so, might just help tackle prejudice today. Maybe Noor’s face on the fifty-pound note will help do just that.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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