The rise of the far right

The English Defence League is drawing thousands to its anti-Muslim rallies

Matthew Lloyd Getty Images/ Phil Noble Reuters/ Sand Tan AP

“We’re expecting a nice peaceful protest, and we’ll all be home for tea time.”

The police officer in the northern British city of Bradford was speaking in advance of a planned rally by the English Defence League, a far-right group that, since its launch less than two years ago, has grown into a street movement capable of mobilizing hundreds or thousands of supporters at demonstrations across Britain. The EDL says it is non-racist and opposed only to Muslim extremism and the “stealthy introduction of sharia law” into Britain. “We are a grassroots social movement who represent every walk of life, every race, every creed and every colour, from the working class to Middle England,” the EDL’s website claims. “Our unity and diversity is our strength.” Their opponents say they are fascists and racists, and hate Muslims of all types.

The EDL formed last year, shortly after a small group of Islamist extremists in Luton confronted members of the Royal Anglian Regiment with taunts and insults during their homecoming parade after returning from the war in Afghanistan. Early adherents were organized through groups of soccer club supporters, and came to include members and ex-members of the British National Party, which until recently banned non-whites, as well as a sprinkling of more extreme neo-Nazis and skinheads.

Usama Hasan, an imam at London’s al-Tawhid’s mosque, has argued strongly for what he describes as an indigenous, English Islam, one that rejects extremism and is integrated into broader British society. He corresponds with one EDL supporter online and says the group’s rise reflects, in part, the failure of British Muslims to engage with their non-Muslim peers and make clear their opposition to extremists such as the “idiots” who verbally attacked returning British soldiers in Luton. “We have a lot of work to do on dialogue,” he said. Hasan is trying to organize a group of British Muslims to go to Wootton Bassett, the small town through which the bodies of deceased British soldiers are taken when they are brought home from Afghanistan, to show their respect and support.

EDL marches and demonstrations typically result in violent confrontations with police who stand between them and their opponents, including the thousands of British Muslims living in cities the EDL targets. Despite claims of inclusiveness, a broader hostility toward Muslims in general is often evident. “God bless every single person in this country, of all religions, creeds and cultures,” an apparent EDL leader told supporters as he spoke to them through a megaphone at a recent rally. “And you know what? Even God bless the Muslims. They’ll need it for when they burn in their f–king hell.”

Previous violence at EDL demonstrations led to a hot debate among opponents of the EDL about how to respond to the group’s visit to Bradford. The economically depressed city is home to some 75,000 Muslims and was the scene of race riots and arson in 2001, when another far-right group tried to march there. Some activists feared that physically confronting the EDL, as has happened at previous rallies, might trigger a similar conflagration.

Several Bradford imams urged the city’s Muslims to stay away from the city centre to avoid confrontation. Others supported a coalition calling itself “We are Bradford,” which held what was billed as a celebration of unity and peace at a location far enough removed from the EDL demonstration site to avoid any direct confrontation. The leftist group Unite Against Fascism, which had previously faced off against EDL marches, bused in supporters to take part. “They’re here to stir up racial hatred. We’re not going to rise to that,” Arshad Ali, a psychologist and organizer with We are Bradford told Maclean’s as the event began around noon.

He stressed that those opposed to the EDL would stay well away from them but that simply ignoring their presence would have implied EDL opponents were weak. “If we don’t come here, what are we saying, that fascists can come to our city and we hide in our houses?” Ali said. “When the Nazis attacked Britain, Churchill didn’t say hide in your houses. This is our city. If we gave in to the Nazis, we’d be German by now.”

Ali, who ran for the Respect Party during this year’s national election, also volunteers with the charity Viva Palestina, driving convoys of aid to Gaza. He says people outside of Britain hear he is from Bradford and immediately ask him about the 2001 race riots. “That’s embarrassing. This is our chance to redeem ourselves.”

Around Ali, a variety of activists promoting a variety of causes were setting up their stalls. They included those supporting nuclear disarmament and advocating for stronger workers’ rights. Rival Trotskyist and socialist newspaper vendors hawked their wares. One, selling the Morning Star, which grew out of the Communist party’s Daily Worker, claimed hers was the “sensible” publication. Technicians performed a sound check at a stage. One musician, the rapper Sway Major, would soon sing about “corporate America and Zionist pigs.”

In the meantime, about 500 m away, members of the English Defence League arrived. Denied the right to march through the city, they had been allotted a walled-in expanse of grass and pavement on which to hold a “static demonstration.” They came past phalanxes of police officers, in buses with red and white English flags held against the windows amidst cheers and chants, banners, tattoos, bare chests, and a pervasive smell of beer.

Conspicious among them was a short and thin South Asian man holding a Glasgow Rangers soccer club flag and speaking with a thick Scottish accent. “These people aren’t racists,” he told a crowd that gathered around him, referring to the EDL. “I’ve seen real racists in Scotland. They won’t shake your hand. All we want is a peaceful Britain.”

The man was Abdul Salam, a Glasgow Muslim who has attended many EDL events. Those listening to him—mostly anti-EDL activists—suggested he talk to an enormous man with a shaved head and a camouflage jacket on a nearby corner. A woman with a pitbull stood beside him. “Ask him to show you his swastika tattoo,” one said.

Salam duly approached the man, shook his hand, and said this was proof of his tolerance. By now the surrounding crowd, which included a dozen or so South Asian men, was jostling the two and yelling “Fascist scum off our streets!” The police pulled Salam away. “They’re evil people,” he shouted, pointing over the arms of the police at the Muslim men taunting him. “They’re hypocrites and terrorists, and they’ll burn in the fires of hell.” In the safety of the designated protest area, Salam told Maclean’s it was the Muslim opponents of the EDL who are racists. “Islam says we’re all one,” he said. “They’re bigots and sectarians. They’ve made me an outcast. When I came here I didn’t get abuse from this lot. I got abuse from Asians.”

Wayne Baldwin, the large man whose hand Salam had shaken, had also come into the designated protest area. Asked if he really had a swastika tattoo, he said he did but wasn’t a Nazi. He then took out his digital camera and showed off a picture of his large Nazi flag at home. “It’s the same as the Union Jack,” he said. “And wasn’t the Confederate flag flown by people who lynched blacks? And didn’t Stalin kill loads of people too?”

Salam tried to explain this away. He said Baldwin displaying a Nazi flag was similar to Protestant Glasgow Rangers fans flying the Ulster banner of Northern Ireland to antagonize their rival Catholic fans. He said a man couldn’t be judged by his past. Baldwin, meanwhile, enthused about skinhead white-power bands. Another EDL supporter commented on his skinhead ties. Baldwin, who had just been yelled at by EDL opponents, said, “It’s only people like us that will stand up to them.”

Hard, driving music drifted over the protest park as more EDL supporters emerged from buses. Soon there were close to 1,000. Groups gathered to thrust their fists or open hands into the air and chant “EDL! EDL!” and “Muslim bombers off our streets!” A middle-aged man, thin-faced, earnest, and older than most of the others, approached. “Good show, lads,” he said. “We’ll get this up on YouTube. I’ve got a banner and some poles. Can you help me hold it up?”
“What’s it say?” Salam asked.

“No mosques.”

Salam declined, but the man soon found other takers, and his banner joined those already held aloft: “Stop the paedophile invasion of Britain,” “Islam oppresses women,” “This is our country, not yours.”

Several EDL supporters now broke into song, a reworked version of a tune sometimes heard at England-Germany soccer games: “There were 10 Muslim bombers in the air . . . But the RAF of England shot one down . . . ” Eventually, as the song concludes, there are none.

Many of the EDL supporters appeared drunk and angry, but many also were not. “We’re not Nazi hooligans,” one young woman, standing apart from her rowdier colleagues, insisted. “I’m here for this country, to protect this country. We don’t want sharia here.” Andy Greenhalgh, an 18-year-old student at Bury college, said, “Basically, we’re just a load of lads who are at the end of their tether. A lot of towns in the north of England are socially divided. They’ve not tried to integrate with us. They’re not trying to integrate with us. I’m not racist. I have lots of black and Sikh and Hindu friends. But in my opinion, not all Muslims, but most, are trying to take away our British way of life. No offence, but they’re going to have a much better life here than in Pakistan, so why do they hate us so much?”

“We have no problems with Muslims, but I do have a problem with Islam being imposed on other people,” another EDL supporter said. “It’s such an intolerant way of life. How long can you tolerate intolerance?”

One of the questions surrounding the EDL is what are its ultimate goals. It shows no apparent inclination to morph into a political movement, such as the British National Party, but it’s difficult to imagine how it can sustain momentum with simple and repetitive protests. Some supporters say they are content simply to voice their message. At least one had more ambitious goals.

“My personal preference would be a paramilitary, to stand there and say an eye for an eye, the Christian and Jewish way,” Robert Penketh, 32, an information technology worker, told Maclean’s. “At least then the underworld would have honour.” Would such a paramilitary fight Muslims? “Ideally against them, yeah, but also others. The country does need sorting out.”

As the singing and chanting of EDL supporters grew, the size of the crowd opposing them, behind a line of police, swelled as well. The two groups could see each other, and many on both sides brandished fists and middle fingers, waving at each other to come closer and fight. “They’ve come here to provoke us again. They want us to break things,” said Ali Khan, 28, a local bank worker among those gathered behind police lines. “What we’re going to do is just laugh it off.”

Asked about Abdul Salam, the Muslim EDL supporter, Mohammed Khan, a kitchen assistant, described him as a “muppet.” “It’s propaganda,” he said. “They’ve found some idiot to stand there and say things against his religion. When he goes to hell, he’ll find out.”

The taunts and shouting between members of the EDL and a group of South Asian men opposite grew louder. “Allah is a paedo!” the EDL members chanted, jumping up and down, hands in the air. “Where is your passport? We want our country back.”

A few pebbles flew from the EDL side over the heads of the police and into the opposing crowd, then rocks. Some were thrown back. Soon there were cans and bottles and smoke bombs. One burst into flames. Those being pelted were packed in a small area. It was difficult to dodge the missiles. The police herded everyone farther back. A separate line of riot police pushed against the surging EDL supporters, some of whom attacked them. The police swung batons, though infrequently. EDL supporters hurled rocks.

An EDL supporter named Bryce English emerged from the melee. His English Defence League jersey was stained with blood. He said he had tried to stand between the police and the EDL crowd and was beaten and stamped on by those on the EDL side. He blamed neo-Nazis he said had infiltrated the protest. Another EDL supporter stumbled from the crowd, bleeding from the head. Police laid him down on the pavement and treated him a few steps away from the opposing lines.

Things soon calmed down. The police made about a dozen arrests, and by the end of the afternoon several of the EDL demonstrators were talking amiably with the officers surrounding them as they were escorted back on their buses. Those who lived in Bradford walked away. An EDL “team leader” told Maclean’s the protest had gone “okay.” He blamed the rock throwing on a “local element that came for the trouble and used us as a platform to vent their anger.”

The protest wasn’t peaceful, and it wasn’t quite over by tea time. But there was no repeat of the riots that so deeply scarred Bradford in 2001, and most of the police who covered the event likely made it home for supper.

As dusk fell, streets in downtown Bradford were quiet. Most stores were closed, and only a few pedestrians were out. Sumara Sultan and Ammarah Mir, two young Bradford women, had attended the Bradford Together event earlier in the day and were on their way to dinner. They told Maclean’s the event was a success, that people from all different religions and ethnic backgrounds were there, that they demonstrated the “true face of Bradford.” They were happy and proud.
Elsewhere in the downtown core, two groups of white youths hailed each other. “EDL! No surrender!” they shouted, their voices echoing off of the shuttered shops.

They passed two young South Asian men who glared at them. “I know, they’re looking at us,” one of the white youths said to his companions. “But there’s only two of them. Let’s go.” A couple of them nevertheless hung back to strut close to the South Asian teenagers. “EDL! EDL!” one said, but without much gusto. The two pairs circled each other for a few seconds, then drifted off down separate streets.

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