Who’s Who in These Riots?
‘The English Defence League say they aren’t the British National Party. But some of them are members and I’ll have nothing to do with them’
I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to work out what the opposite of déjà vu would be: something you glimpse briefly and realise that you’re going to see again.
Some years ago in London, I debated with a young Birmingham councillor called Salma Yaqoob, a prominent figure in George Galloway’s Respect Party. She described the 7 July bombings as “reprisal attacks”.
In the years since 9/11, 7/7 and many other attacks, some of us have warned of what would happen if the question of Muslim extremism was not addressed. Even as we warned, it became clear that our government and an entire political class were refusing to address or even name the problem.
Hate-preachers used British mosques to call for murder yet no prosecutions were forthcoming. Individuals on welfare benefits called for the destruction of the state that was subsidising them and nobody in power thought it very noteworthy. Think-tanks and newspapers released reports on the extent of Muslim radicalisation and were rewarded with attacks from politicians.
Some of the press picked up the issue, but never the politicians, so fearful were they of being tarred as “racist” or — the new smear — “Islamophobic”. Finally, someone went too far. Al-Muhajiroun — which Tony Blair promised to ban and which reconstituted itself earlier this year — organised a set of highly provocative events to announce its return. The most significant was in March, when it protested against a parade in Luton of Royal Anglian Regiment soldiers returning from Afghanistan. The protestors — who carried placards calling the troops “butchers”, “cowards” and “killers” — were protected by the police from increasingly irate locals. Predictably enough, people objecting to the al-Muhajiroun demonstration were the only ones arrested on the day.
A retaliatory protest by local residents the next month was banned from marching and ended in clashes with police. In August, a demonstration in Birmingham by a newly-formed group — the English Defence League (EDL) — sparked a counter-protest organised by Unite Against Fascism, and the city centre was turned for one Saturday into the scene of running street battles and riots.
Videos of the initial EDL protest which sparked the unrest are surprising. The largely male group of white skinheads is standing under banners with headlines like “Sharia law means the execution of gays and mutilation and stoning of women”. I know: it’s slightly odd seeing a group of skinhead guys who profess themselves keen on gays — outside Soho at any rate. The other EDL banners are equally surprising. “Black and white unite”, “We are not BNP and we are not racist” and “We hate the Nazis as much as we hate Muslim extremists”. Is all this cynical positioning or genuine? In an interview, EDL “spokesman” Paul Ray said they were opposed to “all devout Muslims”. The EDL say they are not BNP, but there are certainly BNP people who have been involved with them and as a result, and because of Ray’s awful comment, I think it important to have nothing to do with them. Last month, a group of EDL supporters came to an interview I was due to give in east London. I told them that I thought they were BNP-linked, could have nothing to do with them and left the area.
In Birmingham, the EDL’s banners claiming they were not BNP were to no avail. Self-appointed “anti-fascist campaigners” need fascists to give themselves purpose and are often keen on violence themselves. And there was Salma Yaqoob whipping up a group of young Muslim men, describing the streets of Birmingham as “our streets”. The mob battled with police and eventually the EDL, kicking some of its members to the ground, reportedly burning Union flags and getting in response some equally disgusting, racist and thuggish behaviour from some of the EDL crowd.
It’s a surreal sight, seeing one side waving “stop the fascist BNP” banners, and on the other side a group waving banners that say they are not the BNP. But it is a sign of things to come. In the following weeks, Birmingham again and then Harrow in north-west London, descended into the same violence, with self-described anti-Islamists and young Muslims clashing in the streets.
For years, our political class has allowed militant Islam to thrive in Britain and ignored those who have been warning of the consequences. Now the entirely predictable street-level response has begun. In the ensuing noise, as actual fascists from all sides try to clear the ground for themselves, those of us who hate them all will need all our care and caution to work out who is who.
Déjà-vu often leaves you slightly disorientated. If recent weeks are anything to go by, its opposite cannot but leave you feeling very bleak indeed about the future into which this country is heading.