A Muslim woman who sacrificed herself, also, for the Jewish cause
by Stephen Schwartz
A group of British Asians has launched a campaign to install the first major public memorial in the UK to a Muslim or to an Asian woman. The object of commemoration is relevant in these times of radical Islamist rhetoric, as well as fear of civilizational clash: an Anglo-Indian Sufi, Noor Inayat Khan, who served as an Allied intelligence agent and was executed by the Nazis in France during the second world war.
The effort calls for a bronze bust of her to be placed in central London, on land owned by the University of London. Some £25,000 has been raised so far, of a projected £100,000 needed for completion of the project.
I first heard the inspiring story of Noor Inayat Khan more than 25 years ago, when I encountered her brother Hidayat Inayat Khan, a composer of Western-style classical music, in a visit to Canada. I met Hidayat in 1984, the fortieth year after Noor was done to death at the age of 30. Noor and Hidayat were children of Hazrat Inayat Khan, an Indian Muslim aristocrat and founder of a broadly conceived school of Sufi spirituality, derived from the Chishtiyya Sufi legacy. Like many Indian Sufis, Hazrat Inayat Khan sought to fuse Islamic mysticism with Hindu traditions. The movement he created flourishes in various countries.
His daughter Noor was born in then-tsarist Russia and was educated in France. Her mother was an American woman, Ora Baker, who had married Inayat Khan. Noor's passport reflected her status as a British imperial subject although like her father, who knew Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Noor supported Indian independence. The family was directly descended from Tipu Sultan, known as "the Tiger of Mysore," and an 18th century opponent of British rule.
She studied psychology and music in France, and like her brother Hidayat was a pupil of one of the most distinguished music teachers of the 20th century, Nadia Boulanger. Noor had also published a children's book of tales from the subcontinent when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and war began between Hitler's regime and the British and French. Many Indians followed Gandhi in the "Quit India" campaign, which demanded independence before Indians could support the Allies.
Noor differed from Gandhi in volunteering on the side of Britain, but also in her willingness to participate in an armed struggle. She and her brother Vilayat Inayat Khan, who later succeeded to leadership of their father's Sufi order, went to Britain to enlist. Noor was trained as a radio operator by the women's auxiliary service of the Royal Air Force but was recruited to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an intelligence body established to support resistance movements in countries occupied by the Germans, Italians, and Japanese.
Noor Inayat Khan was flown into northern France in 1943 and journeyed to Paris, where she maintained wireless communications with London for a network of resistance activists. She used disguises and aliases, including the code-name "Madeleine," and carried a gun. Nazi security agents arrested all the other radio operators in her group, and she was finally captured after three months. The Germans sent her to the concentration camp at Dachau. She was tortured but refused to break, and was executed. She was awarded the George Cross, a British military medal, posthumously, in 1949. The official announcement of the decoration states, "She refused… to abandon what had become the principal and most dangerous post in France, although given the opportunity to return to England, because she did not wish to leave her French comrades without communications and she hoped also to rebuild her group… The Gestapo had a full description of her."
The final cry of Noor Inayat Khan before she was killed was one word: "Liberty!" I have not forgotten this moving detail of her story since the time I first heard it.
Shrabani Basu, author of a biography of the Sufi woman who was martyred as a participant in the French liberation forces, has commented, "it is very important that what she did should not be allowed to fade from memory, particularly living in the times that we do. Here was a young Muslim woman who gave her life for [Britain] and for the fight against those who wanted to destroy the Jewish race."
Noor Inayat Khan was not alone as a Muslim and Sufi, in becoming an antifascist hero. The Bosnian Sufi master Hafiz Halid Hadžimulić, a distinguished commentator on the Mesnevi of Mevlana Jalalad'din Rumi, recently died at 95. During the second world war he was persecuted by the Nazi-allied Ustaša occupiers of Bosnia-Hercegovina because of his support for the Partisan movement. The American Jewish photographer Norman Gershman, who has created a record of the rescue of Jews from the Nazis in the Albanian lands, has pointed out that the Bektashi Sufi order, which is headquartered in Albania, collectively joined other Albanians, both Muslim and Christian, in actively saving Jews, most of them refugees from elsewhere in Europe. Many of the protected Jews were hidden in central and southern Albania, traditional Bektashi regions. Albania was the only country occupied by the German with a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than at its beginning. Today, Sufis are prominent in the mass resistance to clerical rule in Iran.
Noor Inayat Khan has been honored annually in France, where there are two monuments to her. In the UK, her name is already inscribed on a London marker of remembrance for the British First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. There is talk of producing a movie about her life. She will, we hope, receive a proper tribute in the form of a publicly-visible bust. The life of Noor Inayat Khan is an honor to all Sufis, all Muslims, all Indians, all antifascists – all who love liberty.