It’s been a good month for the English Defence League. Before the renewed wave of anti-Muslim bile after the horrendous murder of Lee Rigby, the EDL seemed to be staring into the abyss. Their rallies attracted increasingly derisory turnouts, notable for punch-ups between drunk racists: impressive shows of force by anti-racists in Walthamstow and elsewhere humiliated them.
Not anymore. Despite a plea from Rigby’s family, the EDL ruthlessly hijacked last month’s tragedy. Poisonous Muslim-bashing rallies have been held across the country. Send the black c**ts home’, declared a speaker at their Newcastle demonstration last week: he was met with raucous cheers. But last week, their leader – who operates under the pseudonym “Tommy Robinson”– was treated to a reprehensibly soft interview on BBC’s Today programme: the activities and beliefs of Robinson and his gangs were barely scrutinised. Such appearances do nothing but help legitimise racism, treating it as just another valid political perspective that can be calmly engaged and debated with just like any other set of beliefs. A bunch of thuggish racists are running rings around the Establishment.
In the Daily Telegraph, its former editor Charles Moore defends the EDL as “merely reactive”, as non-violent, as “the instinctive reaction of elements of an indigenous working class which rightly perceives itself [as] marginalised by authority, whereas Muslim groups are subsidised and excused by it”. Allegations of racism or fascism “are not strictly accurate”, he reassures us.
In the days after Rigby’s death, I cycled past a massing EDL demonstration on Whitehall: crowds of thugs were screeching “fuck Islam!” Some were displeased when I tweeted this observation to the world and distributed my picture via text, Twitter and Facebook with an urge for supporters to keep their “eyes peeled”. On their Facebook page they debated creative ways of killing me, ranging from stamping on my head to hanging me by my testicles with “Traitor” burned on my chest. Presumably they were just being “reactive”.
Tommy Robinson himself demands that Muslims follow British law: odd from someone who struggles with the same advice, having served a 12-month prison sentence for assaulting an off-duty police officer who tried to stop a domestic incident with his partner, as well as convictions for “threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour.” He once warned “every single Muslim watching” that the “Islamic community” would face “the full force of the English Defence League” if any British citizen was hurt or killed.
Here are Moore’s non-racist, non-violent “reactive” band.
Others have suggested EDL critics such as myself are inconsistent: Blairite MP Tom Harris notes that, while I am on record for calling for Britons to stand united against the EDL, there was “no similar exhortation...to stand firm against Islamism”. So convinced is Harris of the left’s softness on Islamism that, on hearing initial reports of the massacre of mostly young socialists by far-right terrorist Anders Breivik in 2011, he presumed Islamists were responsible and tweeted: “Even after Oslo, we’ll still have the apologists for terrorism saying it was caused by ‘foreign policy’ or by ‘disrespect to the Prophet’.” Unfortunate, to say the least, that the attack was justified by an invented threat to Western civilisation posed by Muslims.
But the truth is that violent political Islamism – abhorrent though it certainly is – is a fringe view among Britain’s small Muslim minority, however much fury has been caused by disastrous foreign wars. According to polls, 83 per cent of Muslims are proud to be British – compared to 79 per cent of the general public; just 2 per cent believe the Koran justifies suicide bombings. Vast amounts of state resources are devoted to dealing with terrorist activity. Inflating the importance of such a minuscule movement only fuels the already pervasive association of Muslims with terrorism.
Anti-Muslim prejudice, however, remains worryingly widespread. Over a third of Britons think they pose a serious threat to democracy; and while the number who believe Muslims are compatible with the “British way of life” has increased, just one in three believe that. The EDL threat has to be taken seriously, but it needs careful thought. State bans on EDL protests have frequently been sought. The rationale is sound: far-right thugs chanting aggressively about Muslims rampaging through our streets pose a straightforward menace.
But it is an approach with worrying implications. After the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when anti-fascists courageously defended the Jewish community of the East End from Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, the Tory Government implemented the Public Order Act, requiring police consent before demonstrations and the banning of “political uniforms” in public. But it ended up being used squarely against the left. When a precedent of banning protests is set, who knows who will be next? That’s why community-based counter-demonstrations are so crucial: so that, when racists attempt to intimidate entire minorities by parading their hatred through the streets, they are challenged and outnumbered.
The truth is the EDL are simply a striking symptom of a society where anti-Muslim bigotry is acceptable: it passes the “dinner table test”, as Tory minister Sayeeda Warsi has put it. Now it’s Muslims; once it was Irish people who faced racist scapegoating after terrorist attacks: a twisted irony, then, that Tommy Robinson is himself the son of Irish immigrant parents. But this prejudice is not confined to the right. Some on the left seem to believe defending Muslims is somehow a betrayal of secularism. Studies show newspapers routinely portray Muslims in a negative light. And so here is the dark truth. After a month in which the EDL have enjoyed a resurgence; Muslims abused on the streets and online; mosques firebombed – all those who have fanned bigotry, take responsibility, because these thugs are your children.