The 70th anniversary of the D-Day Allied invasion of Normandy this month provides a welcome opportunity to recall and re-evaluate the often ignored or misrepresented Arab and Muslim role in the Second World War.
Islamophobic and other hostile voices in the West often mischaracterise the Arab and Muslim participation in the war as largely or entirely pro-Nazi, while Arab and Muslim societies tend to focus on anti-colonial struggles at the expense of the Second World War.
The record is a complex, mixed and nuanced one, but the overarching fact is that Arab and Muslim involvement in the war was overwhelmingly on the Allied side, and was a significant factor in fighting on the ground. The overwhelming majority joined the cause voluntarily, despite British and French colonialism.
Moroccans estimate that 1,700 of their countrymen participated in the D-Day invasion as part of the Free French Army. This only hints at the scale of North African participation in Allied fighting.
The majority of the French army in North Africa in 1939 and 1940 were Arabs. In the French defeat of June 1940, about 5,400 Arab soldiers were killed fighting on the Allied side, and an estimated 60,000 Algerians, 18,000 Moroccans, 12,000 Tunisians and 90,000 other Muslims were captured by the Germans. It has been estimated that 233,000 North African Muslims were serving in the Free French Army in 1944, and that about 52 per cent of all its troops killed during the final year of the war were Muslims, mostly from North Africa. Some 40,000 North Africans are estimated to have given their lives in fighting for the liberation of Europe in 1944-45.
Not all incidents involving North African troops were glorious, of course. Atrocities in the war took place on all sides and all fronts, and it’s true that Moroccan forces played a major role in mass rapes of Italian women and killing of Italian men following the bitter Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. The atrocity is still remembered as the “Marocchinate”.
The Allied Muslim contingent from South Asia was even larger. At least half a million Indian Muslims enlisted in the British military during the conflict. At least one-third, if not more, of the British “Indian Army” that fought during the war on many fronts were Indian Muslims – a disproportionately high percentage.
Additional untold numbers were recruited from various Arab states, or among Muslims fighting in the Soviet, Chinese and other Allied armies. Exceptionally few took up arms on the Axis side. About 9,000 Palestinians, for example, joined the British Army during the war.
On the other hand, there were significant groupings with sympathy for Nazi Germany in Arab and Muslim societies. Some of this was clearly driven by anti-colonial sentiment. But at times it clearly crossed the line into outright ideological support, such as by the short-lived Rashid Ali government in Iraq.
The most notorious Arab collaborator with the Nazi regime during the war was the former Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin Al Husseini. Having been plucked from relative obscurity by the British and installed in his clerical post, and then exiled by them from Palestine, he became an avid supporter of Hitler and his murderous anti-Semitism.
However, following the war, after receiving a hero’s welcome in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Husseini quickly slipped into obscurity and played no further role in Palestinian politics until his death. He remains a largely forgotten figure, with even Hamas according him no real historical significance (unlike his still-lionised contemporary Izzedin Al Qassam).
One of the most frequently cited condemnations of Al Husseini was his role in the formation of a Bosnian Muslim SS division. However, as Marko Attila Hoare has demonstrated, the support of large segments of the Bosnian Muslim population and elite was crucial in the victory of the Yugoslav partisans over Nazi puppet regimes.
Moreover, in one of the most startling and underappreciated facts about the war, the only state that came under direct German occupation that had a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than the beginning was also the only Muslim-majority one: Albania. Albanian Jews were almost entirely saved from the Holocaust because the entire society, from the top down, systematically conspired to prevent the Germans from discovering who was Jewish.
The record in German-occupied North Africa was more mixed and less edifying, as Robert Satloff’s research shows. As in most of Nazi-occupied Europe, many North Africans collaborated with the Nazis, or else did nothing, or too little, to resist them or to protect their Jewish neighbours. But others went to great lengths to protect as many Jews as possible. And, as we’ve seen, hundreds of thousands joined the Free French Army to fight the Nazis despite the underlying reality of French colonialism.
Arab and Muslim responses to the Second World War, and their role in the conflict, were enormously varied and include significant instances of glory, shame and ordinary survival. But, it is essential to remember and recognise that huge numbers of Arabs and Muslims fought in the war, and that – in spite of the constant misrepresentation, distortion or downplaying of this reality – they did so almost entirely on the Allied side and against Nazi Germany.
Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www. ibishblog.com
On Twitter: @ibishblog