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Arabs & World War II: The Sacrifice and the Impact

posted on: Jul 22, 2021

Image 1: Geographic Map of Arab World. Source: Seterra.

By: Ruqyah Sweidan/Arab America Contributing Writer

The first time America realized the significance of the Middle East was during World War II. Before the war, the US was mainly involved in missionary, philanthropic and commercial practices in the region. Hence, there was little American interference, so long as American interests were not obstructed. This all changed when America joined the great war. Today, we talk about World War II mostly from a European perspective. While the people on that continent suffered horrendously from Nazi crimes, there is also another side to the story. In World War II, Arabs and Muslims played a great part in the war as well as endured its impacts, some of which are still felt today.

Strategic Significance of Arab Countries

Image 2. An American train transporting aid bound for the USSR stopping at a station, along the Persian Corridor. c. 1943. Source: GCD.

The Nazis had been trying to spread their message among Arabs. Germany also planned to connect with Japan along Asia’s southern rim. This would have made it impossible for the US to send supplies to its allies. Moreover, the Axis powers would have gained control of the region’s enormous oil reserves. Finally, to the west, North Africa became important for the Allies when they realized that they could strategically stage an invasion of fascist Italy. Once there, they would be able to move northward to attack German positions in central Europe. In short, it became vital that the Middle East be under the control of friendly forces, indigenous or European.

First Military Operations in the Middle East

Image 3: British Troops in Syria. Source: WHN.

Soon, the Allies had begun military operations in the region. The Soviet Union needed supplies. So, British and Soviet forces invaded and occupied Iran. The Shah was deposed, and his son was put on the throne. Today, the practice of the Western world choosing Middle Eastern leadership is common. In addition, although Saudi Arabia declared its neutrality during World War II, Britain and the United States subsidized Saudi Arabia with weapons. This encouraged the Saudis to declare war on Germany in 1945. In return, the kingdom entered the United Nations as a founding member when the war ended. Furthermore, in the summer of 1941, British forces invaded Syria and Lebanon. Britain’s intention was to keep Germany from using the territory to attack Egypt.

Arabs Joining the Fight

Image 4: Algerians traveling to the French front. Source: The Guardian.
Image 5: Muslim Soldiers March. Source: MateriaIslamica.

There is a region in northern France, near the town of Arras. It is nicknamed, “the Hell of the North,”. This is because more nearly two billion artillery shells were dropped on this area. It is also the place of mass Arab Muslim casualty. These men had traveled thousands of miles from their countries and fought in the trenches. They even had imams with them who led salah (prayer) and recited the call to prayer into the ears of the dying. When medical supplies ran out, these soldiers used the knowledge of their homeland and made traditional medicines from herbs. They treated their comrades’ wounds, no matter their faith. In a corner of Notre Dame de Lorette, forty thousand graves of the fallen soldiers lay. The Muslim headstones were designed by the French Muslim painter Etienne Dinet. He made sure the stones have Islamic inscriptions and were tilting towards Mecca.

In addition, on the most illustrious day of the war, D-Day, June 6th, 1944, at least five thousand Arab Muslim soldiers died as they tried to deter Germany from invading Britain. This was from the total of 233,000 Muslims of North African heritage who were actively serving in the Free French Army. At that point, they made up about half of all French military casualties. This legacy for fighting for France also continues today, as Muslims make up about 15% of French armed personnel, despite making up 10% of the French population. All in all, it is estimated that 2.5 million Muslims contributed to the allied cause either as soldiers or laborers.

Understanding the Impact Today

Image 6: Graves of Muslim Soldiers. Source: The National.

In conclusion, World War II was a costly war for resources, people and historical implications. It not only changed the face of Europe, but also the Arab countries. After re-examining the history from another lens, the state of the Arab world today can be better understood. Arabs played a vital role in securing the Allies’ win, but their governments suffered great upheavals. There is still much work to be done to reconcile today’s complex political situations that resulted from this time. Thus, there needs to be more awareness of and education about all the types of Arab sacrifices that were made for the decisive victory over Nazism, and the chain of events of modern history that impact us today.

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