Mark Steel: So has anyone really been 'Islamified' against their will?

The most effective opposition comes when people refuse to be intimidated

There's something touchingly innocent about the argument put forward by many people that the BNP should be allowed space in the mainstream media as this will "expose their ignorant ideas". Because history doesn't necessarily prove this to be the case. I don't suppose that, in 1941, many people thought: "You see, this is all working to plan. Now he's invaded Russia everyone will see just what an idiot this Hitler really is."

The arguments of the far-right groups are already obviously ridiculous. The latest slogan they march under is "Stop the Islamification of England". But how many people have had their lives Islamified against their will? Is there a single tea shop owner in Dorset who has to tell her customers: "Sorry dear, we're not allowed to serve a scone until after dark as it's Ramadan." Do radio stations have to start the day: "Allaaaaah – ah-aaaah allaaaaaah. Good morning, this is BBC Radio Sussex calling you to prayer."

The most important government policy in recent years was probably the decision to go to war in Iraq, a move vehemently opposed by almost every Muslim in the country. But the BNP would presumably say: "That proves it – they deliberately ignored the Muslims when they SHOULD be ignoring the BRITISH people."

The trouble is, the BNP don't aim to attract support by winning debates, they want to spread fear and then pose as the respectable antidote. The other trouble is they do this because, in my view, they're fascists, with some of their leadership having a record of supporting Hitler. Leading member Richard Edmonds published "Holocaust News", which claimed the Holocaust was an "evil hoax". The publicity manager Mark Collett fudged the Hitler issue when he said: "Hitler will live forever." Co-founder of the party, the late John Tyndall, managed to surpass that with "Mein Kampf is my Bible". So the party that appoints itself as the barrier to Britain being taken over by a foreign religion was set up by someone who thought the Bible should be German.

And Nick Griffin wrote a pamphlet in 1997 called "The Mind-Benders", in which he said of the Holocaust: "The 'extermination' tale is a mixture of Allied wartime propaganda and witch-hysteria."

Griffin usually dismisses these examples by putting them down to excitable youth. Because we've all got embarrassing snippets from our teenage days, so it hardly matters which of us wore crazy kipper ties and which wrote pamphlets denying the Holocaust, and the fact that Griffin wrote that when he was 38 only shows how young and full of life he is.

But around 10 years ago the BNP hit a snag, realising that their approach was holding them back. Maybe they had a focus group, with someone reporting that, "OK, if I can share my feedback, some of the policies, such as distrust of Europe, supporting British farmers, I'm hearing lots of positive energy. But, and don't take this the wrong way, the praising Hitler angle is proving mostly negative, I'm afraid."

So Griffin set about making them appear respectable. They would deny they were fascist, and claim to be an upstanding legitimate party. This creates another problem with them in the media, as their leaders are determined to conceal what I believe is their real mission, which isn't just to campaign in elections but to build a force of street-fighters. After a BNP member was elected in 1993 Griffin said: "The electors of Millwall did not back a post-modernist Rightist party, but what they perceived to be a strong, disciplined organisation with the ability to back up its slogan 'Defend Rights for Whites', with well directed boots and fists."

At which point if you thought: "Aha, the trick now is to interview him and expose how he's misunderstood post-modernism. Then the electors of Millwall will see how ridiculous he is," you were probably missing the point.

So the most effective opposition comes when communities refuse to be intimidated. Last Friday, when the English Defence League announced a protest against "Islamification" outside a mosque in Harrow, around 2,000 people stood in their way. The "protest" vanished, and the local population has apparently tingled with excitement ever since. As was the case in the 1930s and 1970s, events such as this are the most practical barriers against the far right.

The idea of inviting them into the mainstream in order to expose them is well-meaning, but I doubt whether Griffin thinks: "We can cope with united communities opposing us – but the perfect cutting remark on Newsnight and we're stuffed."