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In league with the extreme right?
This is Louis Amis in November's Standpoint Magazine with the first sensible, rational, objective and measured assessment of the English Defence League that I have read so far. It is a longish article with some interviews; do read it all.
What does it take for one 60-year-old man to run up to another 60-year-old man, whom he has never seen before in his life, and attack him in the middle of the street? The answer may never be entirely clear. As far as indicators of a complex situation go, a pensioner punch-up ranks pretty high.
It's Saturday 10 October, Manchester. An organisation called the English Defence League is holding the latest in a nationwide series of demonstrations against radical Islam. As with the previous demonstrations, it is being met with a counter-demonstration by Unite Against Fascism, a group recently established to fight the rise of the British National Party. UAF enjoys broad support from MPs (David Cameron is among the 50 or so who are signatories), but its infrastructure seems to come mainly from the far-Left. The Respect Party and the Socialist Worker have provided placards reading, "One Country, Many Cultures" and "Smash the BNP!" Red flags bearing the simple slogan "Revolution!" flap in the breeze.
Although it is now the subject of intense media scrutiny, relatively little is known about the EDL. One thing that is known, though, is that it strenuously denies that it has anything to do with the BNP. The BNP leader Nick Griffin, in his infinite wisdom, has decided that the EDL is "a neo-con operation, a Zionist false-flag operation". But UAF thinks otherwise. It's convinced that the EDL is a BNP false-flag operation. So that's the short answer to the question of why the 60-year-old is behaving so badly.
He is a UAF "steward", equipped for this dubious duty with a yellow high-visibility jacket that also allows him to slip beyond the front line of the police-cordoned UAF protest. The main UAF ranks are chanting "Nazi scum — off our streets!" at a small EDL group 20 feet away, who are also being held back by police. But at first glance this man's jacket makes him look like a policeman or a member of the press, so he can walk right up to the EDL, jam a muscular finger in their faces, and reinforce the message: "You're scum and you're dumb, you're scum and you're dumb!"
The small EDL contingent is continuously harassed as the police manoeuvre it through the streets towards a secure holding zone in the middle of Piccadilly Gardens. UAF protestors are intercepting it and linking arms, trying physically to block the organisation that, they are adamant, "has no place on our streets". The tactic makes life difficult for the police, who are denounced from time to time as Nazi collaborators. The second sixty-year-old is with the EDL. He's a local, and is sporting a couple of small St George's cross and Union flag pins on his jumper. The high-visibility jacket approaches, screaming abuse, and the Mancunian asks, "Where are you from?"
Is this a xenophobic gauntlet being thrown down? Or is the man just wondering from what distant place this zealot has been shipped, in order to play his part in the day's proceedings? Both men are white. "Get the f*** out of here, you piece of s**t," growls the man from the UAF, as he jostles him and plants a slap in his face. The Mancunian doesn't hit back, and the UAF man eventually disappears into the crowd.
From the start, the EDL has been a thoroughly amateur operation, built on internet chatrooms and Facebook. It used the existing networks of groups like March for England, and also those of the football hooligan world, quickly to command a fairly large number of committed supporters. It held demonstrations in various British cities throughout the summer, and was met with counter-demonstrations in every one by UAF. Violence broke out each time, and each side blamed the other for setting it off. Local Muslims turned out for the demonstrations, and in many cases so did a small but significant Islamist element, from al-Muhajiroun or other local sources.
In the last month, the EDL has begun to take on a more stable identity. It now has an established leadership and an established message: it is nothing to do with the BNP, and not a political party itself; all races and religions are welcome and in fact wanted for a non-violent pressure group protesting against the influence of Islamic extremism in the UK. The only unsavoury thing that the EDL declares about itself is its affiliation with a body called Casuals Utd, a national federation of football hooligan "firms". But comparing our terraces to their Continental counterparts, football fans in this country, even the hooligan variety, are not particularly racist. The EDL argues that "only a certain sort of people will be willing to face up to the extremists", and this may or may not convince anyone. But the way the right to protest works in this country is that protest groups are taken at their word first, and then their behaviour is subject to scrutiny by the police and the media. From what the EDL says about itself, it is the claim to being non-violent, not the claim to being non-racist, that is the more suspicious.
There is no evidence for the UAF claim that the BNP or some other far-Right agenda is secretly pulling the strings. There is, however, some evidence of a certain amount of casual overlap between the EDL membership and that of the BNP (whose list was leaked to the public last year).
Not everyone in this country has to deal with blatant extremism on their doorstep, but the second reason for Robinson's (see interview) obsession affects us all. It is the fact that there is one system of thought that it is more or less forbidden to satirise, criticise or in certain contexts even mention in the public discourse: the religion of Islam. It's a horrible feeling, not being able to criticise a system of thought, and one that is completely alien to our way of life. The feeling disturbs you so deeply when you encounter it that it becomes easy to start considering alarming theories, like the one about the growing demographics of the Muslim community, which Robinson mentions, or the one about the clash of civilisations.
A second-generation immigrant himself, the son of Irish parents, he isn't calling for Muslims to be deported, or even for a freeze on Muslim immigration: "I think immigration's good, I think it's been good for the country, but at the same time uncontrolled immigration is a time-bomb, and we're producing areas now that don't resemble anything to do with this country any more." He wants every sharia court operating in this country closed, and he's tough on terrorism: "Anyone who's arrested for terrorism charges, don't ever let them out of jail. Send a tough stance. If they're not from here, deport them. Stick their human rights." On mosques, he doesn't want existing ones closed down, simply, "Stop building them until we address what's being taught. Until we address these issues."
These are not the views of a Nazi, or someone from the far-Right.They're the fairly right-wing views of an ordinary man who left school with ten GCSEs to study to become a carpenter, and who may well have once been a football hooligan.
What I do see (returning to the rally in Manchester last month) among the EDL are several non-white faces. Only a handful, and many fewer than Robinson told me to expect, but their presence has to count for something against the accusations of racism. I don't hear any racist slurs either, and the most inflammatory chant I hear is "church not mosque, church not mosque". . . As it stands, the core of the EDL is a group of men who perhaps, at worst, would quite like to beat up Anjem Choudary or have a fight with al-Muhajiroun. At the fringes, there will in all probability remain some who would settle for beating up some ordinary Muslims. And it is up to the police, and the EDL itself, to deal with this. While Tommy Robinson is in charge, the group's rhetoric will be unsophisticated, politically incorrect, and subject to flights of irrationality, but it will not be hateful. This is not the far-Right running loose on our streets.
As for the UAF, if they are at all serious about their stated aims they will at least start splitting their time between the EDL and the group that they have so far ignored. This other group is equal to or greater in size than the EDL, it is taking to the streets this autumn and, unlike the EDL, is united by a fanatical ideology opposed to every liberal value. It's called al-Muhajiroun.
My sentiments precisely.