The leaders of a new anti-Islamist group insist they aren't racist or BNP members
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.
During the course of the day, I overhear several conversations between UAF activists and inquisitive passers-by: “Yeah, they’re the British National Party — fascists — and we’re here to stop them.” There is no doubt that a hardcore element of the UAF has given itself a two-fold mission: 1) to use any rhetoric possible to stir up in the attendant crowds a rage that as near as possible matches their own, and 2) to ensure that the protest doesn’t pass peacefully. The question is, is the EDL so bad that it warrants a campaign of violent agitation and misinformation? The UAF idea is that these are Nazi racists who want to attack Muslims and whoever else after that, and so must be fought with any and all means necessary. But even if the EDL is a Nazi organisation, the police have it well under control. The effect of the aggressive UAF tactics is to keep everything ambiguous, shrouded in a fog of war, and make it difficult for the EDL to be conclusively identified as one thing or another.
Last March, members of the most overtly extreme Islamist group in the country, Anjem Choudary’s al-Muhajiroun, heckled a homecoming parade for soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment in Luton, holding up placards denouncing the troops as “Cowards, Killers, Extremists” and “The Butchers of Basra”. The protest had its intended effect — it provoked outrage. A group called the United People of Luton was formed in response, to protest specifically against the longstanding and very open presence of al-Muhajiroun in the town. At around the same time, a pro-BNP blogger called Paul Ray had an application for a St George’s Day parade in Luton turned down by the council. The United People of Luton, in some kind of collaboration with Paul Ray and perhaps with a pre-existing group called March for England, organised demonstrations in April and May. The first was prevented from going ahead, and in the second, the protesters broke loose from a police “kettle” (an anti-riot manoeuvre) and ran en masse through the town. An Asian man was struck in the face and several windows were smashed. The group was effectively shut down when a number of the organisers were charged with public order offences and banned from Luton town centre for three months. Their response to this was to start up a national organisation, the EDL.
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. Photographs and video footage emerged of shaven-headed white men giving Nazi salutes and chanting racist slurs, and of gangs of Asian youths snatching a Union flag from an old man and beating a white youth to the ground. In July, Paul Ray appeared on talkSPORT radio as a spokesperson for the “English and Welsh Defence Leagues”, and rather than “beating around the bush”, declared that his grievance was with “all devout Muslims”.
The EDL has certainly arisen in the context of a successful period for the BNP, which won two seats in June’s European parliamentary elections and more than six per cent of the national vote, and perhaps a somewhat active period for other types of far-Right extremists. In early May, in between the two United People of Luton protests, the Islamic Centre in Luton was gutted by an arson attack. In July, counter-terrorism detectives uncovered a far-Right terrorist network and, along with it, a weapons cache larger than any seized in this country since the early 1990s. It is a fact that Muslims have, for some time now, been the main preoccupation of the far-Right in all its forms.
But it is problematic to designate the EDL as far-Right, because it is a single-issue pressure group. The only thing that everyone within its loose structure has in common is that they are against Islamic extremism, and that in itself is not necessarily a far-Right cause. The problem, of course, is that an anti-Islamic extremism campaign will attract people who are simply anti-Islam. Although Paul Ray has left the EDL since his infamous talkSPORT interview (with bitter words on his blog for the “pirates” who he claims ousted him), the group is likely to remain attractive to people with his kind of views.
Pro- and anti-EDL demonstrations in Manchester last month
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). The anti-fascism magazine Searchlight has run a series of articles investigating this kind of crossover, and when I talked to Tommy Robinson (a pseudonym), the current leader of the EDL and founder of United People of Luton, I challenged him about them.
“To be honest, my stance all along is that BNP members aren’t racist. I can admit that seven years ago I looked into the BNP when I felt that I had no one else I could turn to in my hometown, just to see, because I wasn’t aware of all their stances. Like not letting non-white people join — I wasn’t aware of that. Like what political party Nick Griffin used to run, i.e. the National Front.
“With regards to Chris Renton [who was said to have designed an early EDL website], he was a BNP member, he’s now resigned from the BNP. One hundred per cent I believe that Chris Renton is not racist at all. He told me clearly that he was not aware that black people couldn’t join. He just was worried about Islamic fundamentalism in this country, and they were the only people speaking a language that he could listen to.
“Davy Cooling [said by Searchlight to be a member of both the BNP and the MIGs (Men in Gear), a football hooligan firm from Luton which, according to Searchlight, doubled as activists for the BNP] is a nice bloke. The MIGs are a football hooligan element from Luton Town who pretty much haven’t been around since the 1980s. He’s in the EDL, but I know everyone in Luton and I know Davy Cooling is not in the MIGs. I know who is and isn’t in the MIGs. So you have to question whether he’s a BNP member or not as well. He swears he’s not, but I’ve heard someone say he’s on the leaked list. But at the same time, Davy Cooling hangs around many black lads. Even if he is a BNP member, it doesn’t mean he’s racist.
“I don’t believe that the BNP could be a political voice for the country because they only represent the white people, and only the British whites at that. To say that their stance on not allowing non-white people to join isn’t racist is ridiculous. If they change that then they’ll appeal to a lot more people, but I still don’t like it. From my own personal point of view, having some very good black, Indian, and Asian friends, I’d never accept them and I’d never stand with them in anything.”
It takes a long time to get Robinson on to specific points like these, because what he really wants to talk about is the problem of radical Islam, the creeping Islamification of our society, and the emerging double standards, especially with regards to police treatment of protesters, that he has experienced. Once he gets started on this subject, a floodgate opens and it’s almost impossible to make him stop. Most of what he says would be nothing new to Standpoint readers, but some of his views are entirely lacking in perspective. One of the things he’s particularly worked up about is the threat of “Christmas being called anything other than Christmas”. On the question of the intimidating paramilitary-style balaclavas that the EDL often wear, he responds, “What, more intimidating than ten burkas?”
But there are two good reasons for his obsession. The first is that he happens to live in a place where the real fascists of al-Muhajiroun have been operating with impunity for a long time. After the protest against the soldiers, Akbar Dad Khan of Luton’s Building Bridges organization, said, “They are about 10-15 hotheads. The best thing to do is just to ignore them.” But, sadly, both parts of this statement are incorrect. In 2004, Sayful Islam, the leader of the Luton branch of al-Muhajiroun, told the London Evening Standard: “There are more than 50 members [in Luton], and hundreds more support us.” They have been ignored since then, left to grow unchecked, and have contributed to a dramatic failure of integration in a town that is home to the highest-density Muslim population in the south-east.
“Since 2001, that group, al-Mujahideen [sic], and them extremists have been in our town centre. They’ve been outside Don Millers bakery in the middle of our town, and outside Luton University, handing out their propaganda. And no one’s done anything about it. And to think that what they’re preaching to their youth doesn’t spill over and affect us, and doesn’t make their youth attack our youth, is just so naïve. People say, ‘Oh well no one listens to them’ — yes they bloody do!
Strange bedfellows: EDL protesters take up the plight of Muslim women
“I remember once, me and my friend were talking about these kind of issues, and his dad said, ‘What are you on about, you’re a f**king racist.’ I said, ‘Get in the car, let’s drive past Luton Sixth Form College.’ After driving past, his dad said, ‘I f**king see what you mean.’ Every single one of them would stop in the road and completely dagger-look you. Their youth are hostile towards us. Even if you’re just walking down the street, you put your head down, or you’re getting in a row. Everyone in Luton knows the score.”
Not everyone in this country has to deal with blatant extremism on their doorstep, but the second reason for Robinson’s 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. This is where people like Paul Ray come in. Ray, who was recently caught jubilantly using the word “Paki” on American radio, was never more than a self-appointed spokesman for the EDL, and Tommy doesn’t share his stance against all devout Muslims:
“All I know is that I know Muslims myself personally, I’ve got no problem with them. Our problem is with Islamic extremists. We’re not experts on the Islamic religion. Obviously now we’ve got people coming and wanting to get involved who are experts on it, but the English Defence League was formed to tackle Islamic extremists, the sort of Islamic extremists who are not hiding behind doorways or hiding in mosques preaching hatred, the ones that are standing blatantly on our streets doing it. That’s what it was formed for.”
Disappointingly, though, Robinson won’t criticise Paul Ray, whom he defers to as “an expert on the Koran”. As long as a critical conversation about Islam cannot be had in the public domain, people like Ray will be fielding questions.
By his own admission, Tommy Robinson has no political nous, and doesn’t know very much about Islam or Islamic extremism, except what he has seen firsthand. But in the course of several long conversations I detect nothing racist or far-Right about him. He thinks “Barack Obama’s great for America.” He doesn’t think our troops should be in Afghanistan or Iraq (“though of course we’re going to support our boys who are fighting there 100 per cent”), because “it’s probably an unjust war”. He wants to ban the burka, but he has no problem with the hijab: “Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with that, no one cares about them covering their hair if that’s part of it — is that in the Koran? — the same way Sikhs wear their headscarves. I don’t think anyone cares about a normal headscarf, I don’t think they do, and I couldn’t care.”
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. I asked Robinson if he’d ever been one, and he denied it, but it’s hard to see how else he would have such clout among the national fraternity of football hooligans. Later, when we’re discussing the dangers of inviting unknown “experts” to make speeches at EDL events, he suggests that he might just make the speeches himself: “I know my past, be it not all that good. But it’s got nothing to do with racism.”
In Manchester, inside the EDL enclosure on the green of Piccadilly Gardens, behind two rows of riot police and a squadron of frothing police dogs, it’s pretty clear that that’s what most of these guys are: if not actual football hooligans, then certainly the football hooligan type. (And what could be more pointless than shouting abuse at football hooligans? These are the experts at verbal abuse, it’s what they do. The rage of UAF has been temporarily reduced to one middle-aged woman — in a high-visibility jacket — screaming “fascist scum!” into a megaphone. The EDL respond with an obscene version of the terrace favourite, “You’re not singing any more.”)
Setting aside the possibility that Tommy Robinson is some kind of Machiavellian operator who knows exactly what to say to a reporter, the next question is: are there far-Right elements mingling with his group? On the other side of the green, a representative of Love Music, Hate Racism has claimed in a speech to have seen someone wearing a BNP cap, and someone else wearing a Zyklon B T-shirt. But I wander around looking for such signs and see none. Robinson has already told me how they dealt with the guy who was caught performing a Nazi salute in a well-circulated photo from a previous protest:
“Now, he got on the bus, he give the Sieg Heil, as soon as the doors on the bus shut, there was four of them, they got beat up. We stopped the bus and kicked them off. They can send the message back to all their other far-Right, National Front scumbags: You’re going to get beat up if you go to these English Defence League protests. On the first UPL protest in Luton, they got run everywhere, and the police stood there and looked in shock as all Luton’s local lads smashed the National Front out of the town. Took all their leaflets off them and said, ‘Get out of our town, you ain’t welcome here’.”
What I do see 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”. But it is not a popular chant, and passes quickly. Robinson is not religious himself — he thinks “everyone has the right to practise their own religion” — and the EDL’s Templar cross-style logo is probably a relic of Paul Ray’s fondness for Crusader imagery. But if Christianity did start to become a major theme then the EDL might become more dangerous. 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.