Noor Inayat Khan: Pacifist Muslim, British Spy, and WWII Heroine

Back in 2014, PBS aired a docudrama called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Storywhich centered on one of World War Two’s most fascinating and unlikely war heroes: a Russian-born Indian-American Muslim who was steeped in pacifism yet went on to serve the British war effort in occupied Paris. (There’s a mouthful!)

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A British commemorative stamp, circa 2014. (Courtesy of NPR)

NPR did a feature on the film (which I still have yet to see), including an interview with its executive producer, Alex Kronemer.

Inayat Khan grew up in Paris; when the Nazis invaded, her family fled to the United Kingdom. Khan had a choice: She could stay with her family in the U.K. and remain in relative safety, or she could leave her new home and join the war effort.

She chose to risk her life for the cause. Inayat Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, was trained as a wireless operator and was recruited to join the Special Operations Executive. She was stationed in Paris as a radio operator in 1943, linking French resistance fighters with British intelligence.

Shortly after she arrived, most of the other agents at her post were arrested. The few who escaped capture returned to the U.K. — except Inayat Khan. She remained for four months and was the only link between England and the early French resistance group.

Eventually, someone turned her in to Nazi officers for a reward. She violently resisted her arrest, tried to escape captivity twice and was declared “highly dangerous” by the Nazis.

In September 1944, when she was 30 years old, she was sent to the Dachau concentration camp and executed. Her final word was “Liberté.”

Kronemer credits Khan’s pacifist upbringing for giving her the discipline and force of will to resist torturous interrogation by the Gestapo. She was not known to have given anything up to her captors, which resulted in her speedy execution.

In researching for the film, he also discovered that Khan was far from the only Muslim to work against the Nazis during the war.

There was the Paris mosque that saved and sheltered Jews during the war. There was the Franco-Muslim hospital that hid the shot-down U.S. and British airmen and received a Medal of Honor from Eisenhower. And of course the many Algerian immigrants, Muslims, who fought with the French resistance and hundreds of them dying. We were amazed to find how many stories there really were and how little attention has been given to any of them.

It’s amazing how many unsung heroes we’re still discovering all these decades later.

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