Noor Inayat Khan: Britain's Forgotten Muslim WWII Heroine

Noor Inayat Khan: Britain's Forgotten Muslim WWII Heroine

Sadly, the achievements of British Muslims are often trivialised. History is often a subject that seeks to whitewash the past. In some cases this is intentional - a form of political suppression by which the populace is kept ignorant via control of information, much like Orwell's famous pronouncement in 1984: "he who controls the past controls the present, he who controls the present controls the future." In other instances, this prejudice is unintentional - a form of unconscious bias in which we regard the past from a severely blinkered point of view.

In the Western world, and in Great Britain particularly, we're often guilty of neglecting the achievements of minorities and people of colour, as well as the perspective of foreign cultures, in favour of promoting an Anglocentric conception of history. Just think about the neglected heroes, who did so much for their country, only to be cruelly forgotten. At a time when Islamophobic rhetoric is rife in certain parts of the Right, it's important to remember the huge contributions that British Muslims have made to society.

A statue of Noor Inayat Khan, a British spy captured and killed by the Nazis during World War II, is unveiled by Britain's Princess Anne in central London  Credit: Reuters

We all remember the achievements of the RAF during the Battle of Britain, or the Royal Navy during Trafalgar. You might even have heard of the victories won by genius computer engineer and mathematician Alan Turning, who used the ENIGMA machine to crack Nazi codes. But how many of you have heard of Noor Inayat Khan - the daring princess, WWII heroine, and British Muslim who spied on the Germans during the war? The answer, sadly, is "probably not". Yet she has finally been honoured with a statue, erected in Gordon Square Gardens in London, in recognition of her achievements. Her story is one of courage, heroism, and tragedy.

Inayat Khan was born on 2 January 1914 in Moscow. Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, came from a noble Indian Muslim family, which technically made her a princess. Her mother was a descendant of the uncle of Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore. Shortly after her birth, and before the outbreak of the First World War, her family migrated from Moscow to Bloomsbury in London, and then to Paris in 1920.

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Described as shy, sensitive, and imaginative, she studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and music at the Paris Conservatory, later becoming a prolific writer of children's books. When France was occupied by the Nazis, she fled to England and applied for British citizenship.

It was in Britain that she chose to join the women's auxiliary air force, eventually becoming the first female wireless operator sent to Nazi-occupied France, according to records obtained from the National Archives. Regarding her motives, she once stated, "I wish some Indians would win high military distinction in this war. If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave and which everybody admired it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians."

She was deployed to France, where her fluent French proved invaluable. While undercover as "Jeanne-Marie Regnier", she remained in France as a spy even when all other radio operators had been evacuated, at great personal risk to herself. Eventually, she was the last radio operator left in Paris, moving from place to place and only broadcasting for twenty minutes at a time, while the Nazis closed in on her.

Eventually however, her luck ran out and she was captured by the German Gestapo and sent to the death camp Dachau. She was utterly fearless and indomitable: upon her arrest, she fought so fiercely that SD officers were allegedly afraid of her, and the head of the SD in Paris, Hans Kieffer, stated that she did not give the Gestapo a single piece of information, but lied consistently. She was interrogated for several weeks, and made three separate escape attempts, before being shot by her fascist captors. Her last words upon facing down the firing squad was a simple and laconic expression of resistance: "Liberte".

After her death, Inayat Khan was awarded the George Cross, the highest medal of gallantry a civilian can receive in wartime. The statue of her, erected by Princess Anne near her childhood home, will ensure that her legacy will never be forgotten. She will continue to be an inspiration to British Muslims everywhere.