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Valour of Muslim troops at Somme highlighted in Belfast integration project

By Michael McHugh

Muslim links to the First World War are to be explored in a project on integration in Belfast later this month.

Just a short distance from Thiepval, where Ulster soldiers fell, the Deccan Horse - a unit of Muslims from India - made the only cavalry charge of the Somme campaign.

It was launched just two weeks after the bloody advance of the 36th Ulster Division at Thiepval in July 1916.

The shared martial heritage of the Islamic minority in Ulster and their Protestant and Catholic counterparts will be examined later this month.

Local historian Phillip Orr said: "The story of Ulster participation in the Battle of the Somme is of great significance to many here. Last year thousands of descendants and history lovers made their way to France for the centenary events.

"This project is an excellent opportunity to get a sense of the vast imperial contribution to the Great War and especially those men who came from India and served along with troops from this island."

Last year the PSNI reported three racially-motivated incidents or crimes every day, almost as many as sectarian incidents.

An identity-building initiative from integration think tank British Future and New Horizons in British Islam is working with Queen's University and Mr Orr to raise awareness in Belfast's Muslim and Christian communities of their common World War One history.

A total of 1.5 million soldiers from undivided India fought for Britain in the First World War, 400,000 of them Muslims from what is now Pakistan.

As part of the project non-Muslim participants will explore British and Northern Irish identity and its connection to the First World War.

A parallel workshop will be held among the local Muslim community in Belfast, facilitated by Jahan Mahmood, historian and expert on the Indian contribution to the war of 1914-18.

The two groups will then come together to meet and discuss this shared history.

Project co-ordinator Avaes Mohammad, of British Future, said: "Our understanding of history shapes our sense of identity, and that is something perhaps more keenly felt in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK.

"The shared history of service in the First World War has been used as a means to bring people together on both sides of the sectarian divide, and we now hope to broaden those efforts to include minority communities in Northern Ireland.

"History can create divisions but it can also show us that we have more in common than we think - and we hope through this project to open people's eyes to a shared history between different communities in Belfast that goes back over 100 years."

Professor John Brewer of Queen's University said: "For some people in Northern Ireland, particularly in the Protestant community, service in WWI is a key influencer of contemporary identity - though since the peace process we are also more aware of Catholic contributions to WWI too.

"It is not known that there was large participation from Commonwealth soldiers. There is a small Muslim community in Northern Ireland, but despite its size the community has received a disproportionate amount of attacks and hostility.

"Using the heritage of Muslim contributions in WWI will broaden understanding among local Muslims about their British identity and within the wider community about Muslim contributions to British history."

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