At least 100,000 Muslims died serving France during World War I. It's important to commemorate their sacrifices, especially when the country is gripped by anti-Muslim prejudice.

Every year on Remembrance Day, the 11th of November,  France honours the sacrifices of the millions of soldiers that died during World War I. Allied forces in both world wars including France, paid a steep price in blood and manpower to avert German plans of global domination. Memorials to the fallen of the “Great Patriotic War” dot many French villages and people don the blue cornflower ( Bleuet de France), instead of the Red Poppy which is worn in Britain. 

Many of us are no doubt well-acquainted with this version of events, but what is often not as well-studied is the instrumental role of Muslim soldiers in this struggle. Their stories are vital in today’s context in which the Muslim community face hostility from sections of the French government and press. Up to 100,000 Muslims from France’s colonies from North and Subsaharan Africa died serving France during World War I, 70,000 of them at 1916 Battle of Verdun.  These Muslims played their part in the sacrifice in both world wars towards building a more tolerant, multicultural Europe and defeating similar forces to today’s far-right nationalisms. 

Notre Dame de Lorette, the world's largest French military cemetery, where 576 Muslim soldiers are buried.
Notre Dame de Lorette, the world's largest French military cemetery, where 576 Muslim soldiers are buried. (Rooful Ali / )

In a twist of fate, the modern French state’s belligerence towards its Muslim community may risk pandering to the xenophobic forces that had plunged Europe into two world wars. Faced with low approval ratings and prospect of losing to the far-right in future elections, President Macron in recent times has tightened restrictions on the Muslim community. The memory of Muslim soldiers’ considerable sacrifices seems to not have dampened France’s targeting of its beleagured Muslim community. Today some French ministers weaponise “laïcité”, a now anticlerical form of secularism, to construct Muslims as the enemies of the state and French values.  Since the 1970s and 1980s, French secularism has hardened, scrutinising and later banning normative  Muslim practices such as wearing hijabs and full-body bathing suits in the public sphere. Whilst Macron insists his recent clampdowns are targeting ‘Islamists’ not ‘Islam’, these measures theoretically place the country’s 6 million Muslim at odds with the state.  These measures reveal a historic, deep-seated anxiety France has towards organised religion dating back to the days of the 1789 Revolution. The historic abuses of the Catholic church and monarchy would give birth to a Jacobin secularism which informs today’s reactionary, institutional overreach in daily religious affairs. This differs greatly from the British and other state secularism models where the state aims to function as a neutral arbiter between all faiths and none.

The Paris Mosque built in 1926 to thank Muslim Tirailleurs (colonial infantry) from North and Subsubharan who sacrificed their lives in WWI for France.
The Paris Mosque built in 1926 to thank Muslim Tirailleurs (colonial infantry) from North and Subsubharan who sacrificed their lives in WWI for France. (Rooful Ali / )

At the beginning of 2020, Macron announced a series of measures to combat ‘Islamist separatism’, such as a five-year prison sentence and  €75,000 fine for anyone who refuses to see a physician of the opposite gender. Just last month, Macron made a controversial speech labelling Islam as a religion in ‘crisis’ all over the world. The French state’s noose tightened in the aftermath of the brutal beheading of Samuel Paty, a teacher who showed his classes offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and then of course the Nice attacks.  Macron’s government has since closed over 70 schools and Muslim-run companies, and is investigating and threatening to dissolve 50 charities. Concerningly the state has now labelled two key Muslim organisations, The Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF) which monitors Islamophobia, and BarakahCity, a major humanitarian NGO as “enemies of the Republic”, despite no credible link to the terror attacks. Many Muslim households have  been raided by French security and counter-terrorism squads. The Interior Minister Gérald Moussa Darmanin (interestingly of Algerian Muslim origins) even conceded that these punitive measures are little to do with October’s atrocities, but a message the French state had long intended to send to all of France’s Muslim  citizens. 

Rather, this and future Remembrance Day(s) should be an opportunity to send a different message, one of tolerance and recognition of the contributions of Europe’s largest Muslim community. In fairness, France has made some effort to recognise the sacrifices of its Muslim colonial subjects. 576 Muslim soldiers are buried in France’s biggest war cemetry at Notre Dame de Lorette, facing Mecca. Moreover, Paris Mosque, built in 1926, is the most enduring example of France’s gratitude to Muslim “tirailleurs” (colonial auxiliary troops), who helped them defeat Germany especially in key battlegrounds like Alsace, Chemin des Damas, Douamont and Verdun

Indeed, most of the victims of the poisonous gas used in the trenches of Ypres were Algerian Muslim. This recognition has however been limited. The erasure of non-white contributions to the war effort in both wars is exemplified by the Paris liberation parade in 1944. Black soldiers, despite comprising 65 percent of the Free French Forces (West African Senegalese “tirailleurs”), were removed from the parade in order to project an all-white French image in the reconquering of France.

French President Emmanuel Macron lights up the flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier next to French Armies Chief of Staff General Francois Lecointre under the Arc de Triomphe during Armistice Day ceremonies marking the end of World War I, in Paris, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron lights up the flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier next to French Armies Chief of Staff General Francois Lecointre under the Arc de Triomphe during Armistice Day ceremonies marking the end of World War I, in Paris, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020. (AP)

In World War II during the Nazi Occupation of France, many Muslims defied the inhumanity and anti-Semitism of the German-allied Vichy regime. One such individual was the rector of the Paris Mosque, Si Kaddour Benghrabit. Under Benghrabit’s leadership, the mosque went to great risk to shelter and hide Jews in its premises, and forge identity papers for a hundred Jews to pass off as Muslims; some historians claim over 1,500 Jews were saved by Benghrabit’s action including the Algerian Jewish singer Salim Halali.  These heroic deeds are immortalised in the 2011 film ‘Les Hommes Libres (Free Men)’. Benghrabit was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour recognising his courageous actions. As well as ferrying Jewish refugees out of Paris, the Algerian Kabyle mosque attendees smuggled messages between the French resistance in Paris and the Free French Army in Algeria. It is important to remember that their actions carried great personal risk in a context of the regular roundups of Jews to the Nazi extermination camps. In the modern French Republic, presidents like Macron have rightly apologised for the role of France in the July 1942 Vel D’Hiv roundup, in which 13,000 Jews, 4,000 of them children, were deported to concentration camps. Whilst of course some Arabs in Metropolitan France and North Africa collaborated with the Nazis, Benghrabit and the King of Morocco, Mohammed V, who famously refused to give up Moroccan Jews to the Vichy regime, showed actions that were more in line with the oft-cited French values of liberty, equality and fraternity. 

Muslims played a vital role in the liberation of the West in both world wars. Ironically the French government risks empowering similar far-right forces whose xenophobic, nationalistic zeal once unravelled the European continent. France needs to put the brakes on its current crackdown on the Muslim community. Fairer, just treatment of minorities is not just for the benefit of Muslims, but far more in line with the values of freedom and tolerance that France often claims to champion. 

By courting far-right discourse out of fear of losing elections to Marine Le Pen’s Front National Macron, whether he intends to or not, endangers the foundations  of ‘never again’, on which post-world War France and the EU was built . Considering France is a key EU powerhouse, its current direction is one for major concern. France’s double standards on free speech aside, the Vichy regime’s key role in the Holocaust means the state rightly censors offensive cartoons and materials that spread anti-Semitism. Given this dark chapter of French history, it would be fitting to extend these same protections to its Muslim communities, and to recognise that they also, like their white veteran counterparts,  fought and died for the “history and security of Europe”.  

Some say France’s reinstatement of its ambassador to Turkey and French foreign minister recent visit to Al Azhar University, one of the Islamic world’s seats of religious authority, indicate a desire to repair its image in Muslim countries. Whilst these dialogues are needed, France more urgently needs to invest resources in addressing the disenfranchisement of its domestic Muslim community . France may not believe it has to revisit its history to accommodate Muslims, as it insists Muslims adapt to living in the country. But state and society must heal from the traumatic relationship with organised religion, it would help overcoming its knee-jerk reaction to Islam today. Beyond Remembrance Day, if the Republic starts to value this almost 9 percent segment of its population, it would set the tone for its own future national healing as well as foster communal reconciliation and mutual understanding.  

Source: TRT World