In case you hadn't heard, the English Defense League (EDL) are in Bradford this weekend. Understandably its causing a whole lot of concern. The EDL claim to be “Peacefully opposing Islamic Extremism". The reality is that they are deeply Islamophobic, often racist and frequently seeking violence.(1)
Their track record caused the West Yorkshire Police and Bradford City Council to apply for and be granted a Home Office ban on marches. They simply cannot be trusted to march though a multiracial city without at least some of their number going AWOL, causing havoc and possibly more sinister results. However traditional British freedoms of speech and expression mean they cannot be prevented from having a static gathering, and gather they will. And that has involved a lot of planning as to how to deliver a large number (from 5-10,000??) of people arriving by coach, train, flights and cars from all over the country (and undeniably a fair few from Bradford as well) safely to an inner city venue, let them do their thing and then get them out again, all without risk to themselves, those there to oppose them and the people of Bradford who just wish it would all go away. The details of that operation are all available on the web -- or at least the EDL leadership's instructions to their loyal followers, along with the response of a number of not so loyal followers who would rather they could just turn up and cause havoc .... sorry, peacefully protest ... without any collaboration with the police. (2)
So how do you respond to such a threat? Predictably the EDL will not be the only event in the city - there are in fact several. Be Bradford - Peaceful Together, a multi-cultural festival has decided to keep away from the city centre. But Unite Against Facism (UAF) are determined once again to protest against the EDL as close as possible with their We are Bradford event just 200 meters away from the EDL - that is mainly UAF, Socialist Workers Party (SWP), some Trade Unions and a number of Christian and Muslim spokespersons and community groups. Hope not Hate and a coalition of local groups made a decision to not have an event on Saturday so have a Peace Vigil, Bradford Together, on Friday evening, with a lot of Churches, Muslim and other faith groups, community groups, local business and many Trade Unions. And on Saturday morning there will be a prayer vigil at Bradford cathedral, which will be staying open as a place of sanctuary for the day. While its good to see so much concern and opposition to the presence of the EDL it is a matter of concern for the police to have so much going on. The EDL are already talking on their pages about attempting to ride on UAF coaches and attending the Peace Vigil; and there will be many more spontaneous attempts at "mixing" during the protests.
Opposition to the Far Right, and specifically to the EDL has always attracted a lot of debate, especially on the left, but this time the spectre of the Bradford Riots of July 2001 haunts all those who prepare for Saturday. The analysis of what happened 9 years ago, and whose responsibility it was (the far right, muslims, UAF, the police, or varying combinations) underlies the many pieces of rhetoric on the web as to what response is ideologically or pragmatically sound. These were evident in Hope not Hate's July response to the EDL protest. A later meeting called by UAF on 5 August to discuss the best response included all views and seems to have been quite lively with many opposing orthodox SWP doctrine - UAF steer away from defending Bradford from the EDL describes the contributions well. The split in approach between Hope not Hate and UAF, not to mention a range of views by smaller groupings of the left, have all been discussed at length on the web, and are summed up somewhat by an editorial in the Guardian in early August: Fighting racism: united we must stand. The result is a variety events opposing the EDL on Saturday. One can only hope that in their diversity they will attract more people than those who would have attended any one; and that their presence will not be a drain on police resources .
[I have written a few more thoughts on this in the notes below at (3).]
One final factor in here: the response of the Muslim community in all its manifestations is as diverse as the rest of us. There are Muslims involved with the UAF event; and they have a strong presence at the Be Bradford - Peaceful Together event, and the Peace Vigil. Many will stay away, encouraged by community and mosque leaders to avoid the centre of town and the possible trouble or danger. The community leaders will also be working hard to keep away younger men, many of them teenagers, who will be tempted to rise to the taunts of the EDL and respond violently. Some, already angry are being more proactive in their response; they have adopted for themselves the name Muslim Defense League (MDF). They seem to have a loose association with the UAF, who it has to be said can only be using them. (4)
EDL are already talking up the possibility of "the Muslims" being out to create trouble. There will undoubtably be a small number who will be out seeking to make trouble from the beginning. I hope the police will deal with those with no hesitation. The vast majority of the Muslim community just want the EDL to go away and will stay out of the way until they do. However the images in the mind of 2001, of angry young Muslim men, rioting do not go away. The taunts over many hours, the rumours, the fear of many EDL running lose in the city could stir up more to act. It is a possibility we must be alert to. I pray it will not be so, but it is one possibility.
What would provoke such a response? The EDL were away from Luton for over a year - demo's that is, many of their members and national leaders were still living here. Just over a month ago, on July 22nd, they returned to support one of their own, Kevin Carroll, in his appeal against a conviction on public order offenses when it all blew up in March 2009. For five hours, while the case was still going on, a group of just under one hundred EDL roamed fairly freely (though watched / accompanied by police) in the town centre, drank heavily in and around pubs, sang their songs and taunts (Who the f*** is ....; Mohammed was a ....), intimidated Muslims and as time went on threw alcohol and pork at them. After five hours or so, after Carroll had emerged with sentence standing, they moved off to another pub, By that time Muslims working nearby had had enough. They protested to police, more gathered, and a counter-demo emerged. It was small, it was contained (by probably some 200 police) and it ended.But having followed the EDL since their beginnings in Luton, I am convinced that for all their claims of peacefully protesting Islamic extremism the EDL have a deep hatred of Islam, are often racist, many seek violence, and have little idea of what peace looks like. They have protested that they steward their demos and censor their websites. In fact they have just this past week adopted a code of conduct that opposes racism. It is true that administrators of their Facebook page do challenge some comments, remove some and ban members. Yet many comments are missed, and many are tolerated; in fact those same administrators are known to say things themselves that are outside the code of conduct. They protest that people running wild at demos or writing abuse on the web are not members of EDL but of violent far right groups; that some are "trolls", there to stir up division and to post things that cause others to go too far. Yet it happens so regularly and involves long term committed EDL people. It is enough to keep a small industry busy of people who collect screenshots of pages before they are censored or even as they are left, and then publicise them via twitter. See for example Expose Tweets and some of their many screencaps here:
- Muslims preparation for EDL arrival
- Taunting Muslims with pork products (eg waterguns full of pigs blood)
- Response to a BBC programme on the East End Mosque
- Saying semtex (plastic explosive) ready for Bradford demo
- Racist responses
The EDL cannot continue to disclaim responsibility for such behaviour but if they are to be true to their claim must recognise that they create an environment that provokes and fosters such behaviour and words. Their presence on the street and the web is toxic, it poisons the atmosphere. Put simply it stirs up anger and hate.
And the trouble is when you oppose anger and hatred with anger and hatred (as so often happens in counter protests) it multiplies anger and hatred. The answers are not political at their root. Political ideology cannot deal with hatred and anger.
As people of faith we must stand against hatred. Specifically as a Christian I and my brothers and sisters in faith must stand against hatred. At the centre of our faith is a belief in the power of love to overcome fear and confront hatred. We cannot allow ourselves to be drawn into expressions of hatred, whether in opposition to Islamic extremism here in the UK or the building of a mosque in the US. The other day I wrote about the anger and hatred that is being expressed in relation to the "Ground Zero Mosque". What a lot of anger - it can't be good for you. My call was to rise above Islamophobia and to be a people who will bring healing and reconciliation to the divisions in our society.
I will write more about the politics of hatred another time. For now as I contemplate the next two days I can only pray that love may eventually rise above hate. Its seems very simplistic, but it is my hope.
(1) See especially the Channel 4 documentary “Young Angry and British - (on YouTube, first part here; see right hand side for follow on parts), a report in the Guardian English Defence League: Inside the violent world of Britain's new far right and their editorial A hatred exposed .
(2) A google search will quickly deliver the website and facebook page with details on; I have a policy not to link to hate filled sites.
(3) In my understanding the challenge with the EDL is that they don't fit with the old models
of racism, antisemitism, extreme nationalism, the far right, and
fascism. In their totality (of people and ideas held by those people)
they include all the above, but they are not centred around any one of
them. They are specifically opposed to extremist Islam, and since in
their definition pretty well any faithful Qu'ran reading, halal meat eating, conservatively dressed Muslim is an extremist, they are in effect opposed to Islam.
So an ideologically based party like the SWP, with a history of opposing far right wing political ideology is not best oriented to understand or oppose them. Add to that the fact that Islam is a religion and Marxism of any form is essentially materialistic, and there is a lack of understanding of faith issues. (Though the EDL have a similar ignorance of their chosen "side" - the traditional Christian faith & heritage of Britain.)
The continuing challenge to working with the UAF is their strong underlying SWP roots and reliance on SWP organisational infrstructure. And the SWP's commitment to a violent revolutionary anti-capitalist ideology is never far away from their policy and intent for the UAF actions. Thus in an article on How do we stop the English Defense League they conclude: "In the coming months, we have to build a mass movement that can smash the EDL off the streets, and confront the system they feed off." This makes them difficult for many church or Muslim leaders to work with as they tend to dominate and prevent being the coalition it effectively should be.
By contrast, although Hope not Hate's origins are on the left, they seem to adapted to today's very pluralist world and especially to be much more nuanced to the language and way of thinking of faith groups.
(4) UAF's affiliation with the MDF - based it would seem only on opposition to the EDL - has been of concern to many community leaders. More worrying is UAF's refusal to condemn committed extremist Muslim groups like al-Muhajiroun on the grounds that they are united in opposing racism.