As Reported by The Sufi Times
This past New Years Day would have marked the 96th birthday of Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, an Indian muslim woman who was shot dead in a Nazi concentration camp in September 1944, after being the first female radio operator to infiltrate occupied France.
Her courage and self-sacrifice during World War II are to be honoured by a memorial which has been proposed to be raised in London’s Bloomsbury area next year. It will be the first war memorial in Britain either for a Muslim or an Asian woman.
The project has the support of 34 Members of Parliament and a number of prominent British Asians, including human rights activist Shami Chakrabarti and film director Gurinder Chadha, OBE. Permission has been granted by London University and the local authority to build a sculpture in Gordon Square. A sculptor has already been commissioned and the organisers now need to raise £60,000 to complete the project, of which about £25,000 has already been raised.
Noor Inayat Khan was the daughter of acclaimed Sufi teacher and musician, Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882 – 1927), who was one of the first people to bring Sufi teachings to the modern Western world. He established the “Sufi Order in the West”, which survives in various forms to this day and has followers around the world.
Hazrat Inayat Khan’s great-grandfather was Tipu Sultan, a king of Mysore who ruled during the time of the East India compay and who had died in battle against the Duke of Wellington in 1799. Hazrat Inayat Khan had been initiated into the Suhrawardiyya, Qadiriyya and Naqshbandi tariqas, but his primary initiation was from Shaykh Muhammed Abu Hashim Madani into the Nizamiya branch of the Chishti order (named after Shaykh Nizamuddin Auliya, died 1325).
Being an accomplished musician, Hazrat Inayat Khan went to America to tour with a group of musicians, playing mainly traditional court music on his veena and singing. During this time, he attracted a number of students to Sufism and met his wife, Ora Meena Ray Baker, an American from New Mexico who was of English-Irish-Scottish descent. They had their first child, Noor, in Moscow (1914), where Inayat Khan had gone to perform. Three more children were to follow: Vilayat (1916), Hidayat (1917) and Khair-un-Nisa (1919).
When Noor was four years old the family moved to Paris. Noor grew up in an environment steeped in Sufi teachings. Her father established a Sufi centre and regularly held Sufi meditation meetings with a growing number of students, lectured widely and authored a number of books.
Noor went on to study at the Sorbonne, and in her mid-20’s became an author of children’s stories. At the outbreak of war Noor’s family returned to her motherland and they moved into rooms in Bloomsbury Square in London. The site of the memorial which is to built in her name is, therefore, very appropriate.
Both Noor and her brother Vilayat decided they would do something to help the Allied Forces in their efforts against the Nazi threat. Vilayat joined the RAF (Royal Air Force) and trained as a pilot, whilst Noor joined the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). Because of her fluent French, she was given a position in the new Special Operations Executive (SOE) of the British Secret Service. The SOE was desperately looking for radio operators who could be positioned in enemy territory to send back intelligence by wireless.
Her recruiters were not at first convinced of her suitability for the role. One of them noted, “Not overburdened with brains but has worked hard and shown keenness, apart from some dislike of [the] security side of the course. She has an unstable and temperamental personality and it is very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field.”
But in June 1943, she became the first female SOE agent to be parachuted into enemy occupied territory in France. According to Sir Colin Gubbins, head of the SOE, she had “occupied the principal and most dangerous post in France”. As a radio operator she was on the front line of intelligence operations, a dangerous role not for the faint-hearted. She was once stopped by the Gestapo whilst cycling with her radio equipment, but managed to convince them that it was a cinema projector.
However, it eventually transpired that the French resistance group she had been sent to help had already been infiltrated by Nazi agents and within weeks of her arrival hundreds of operatives had been arrested and shot.
Noor turned down the opportunity to return to Britain, choosing to remain behind as the SOE’s only radio contact in or near Paris. She was given a life-expectancy of three weeks, but survived for three months.
But then she was betrayed by Renée Garry, the sister of one of her French Resistance colleagues. The reason for this betrayal is not clear. Some reports say Garry was jealous of Noor’s role as an SOE agent, others say she was jealous of her beauty. In any case, she was seized by the German Gestapo and taken to a concentration camp in Pflozheim. Here she was routinely tortured for weeks, but refused to give up any information to her interrogators.
On 11 September 1944, Noor, together with three other female SOE colleagues, were taken by cars to the concentration camp in Dachau, arriving in the dark. During the night, they were tortured again. Early on the morning of September 12, they were marched out to the dog kennels, forced to kneel two by two and each was shot in the back of the head. Their bodies were incinerated in Dachau’s infamous ovens. Her last words before she died were ‘liberte’.
Shrabani Basu is Noor Inayat Khan’s biographer and founder of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust. She spent eight years researching Noor’s life from war archives and family records, and has more recently been involved in the planning of the new memorial. Basu remarked, “I feel 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 this country and for the fight against those who wanted to destroy the Jewish race. She was an icon for the bond that exists between Britain and India but also between people who fought for what they believed to be right.”
Of the SOE’s 55 female agents, 13 died in action or at the hands of the Nazis. One of those killed (Violette Szabo) and one who survived (Odette Hallowes) have had popular movies made about their lives.
The initial unfavourable assessment made by Noor’s recruiters was in stark contrast to the note that her commander and head the SOE’s French section, Maurice Buckmaster, later made of her: “A most brave and touchingly keen girl. She was determined to do her bit to hit the Germans and, poor girl, she has.”
In France, Noor is already widely recognized as a war hero. There are two memorials for her, and a ceremony is held each year.
In 1975, a commemoration plaque was installed at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, by the State of Massachusetts. It displays Noor’s name and the names of the three others who were executed with her on September 12th 1944.
To this day, nothing has been built in Britain to commemorate the life of this Indian Sufi Muslim woman who courageously sacrificed her life for freedom and the British contribution to the war against Fascism. It is hoped that the proposed memorial will be built to redress this oversight.