Is the English Defense League a Genuine Anti-Islamist Force?
by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
The English Defense League (EDL), a street-protest movement in Britain, purports to be fighting against Islamism in the UK, but is this actually the case? The question of which groups or people one works with among self-described "anti-Islamists" or "counter-jihadists" is often vexing. Many EDL supporters, for example, do not even live in the UK.
Defenders of the organization give their case for the EDL as follows:
Although EDL sympathisers understandably like those who seem to share similar anti-jihadist leanings, they normally overlook a few problems: mainly the nature of many of the people who belong to the EDL.
The EDL is a group with substantial numbers of "football (soccer) hooligans" in its rank-and-file: namely, fans, often part of organized gangs known as "firms," who travel to various grounds to stir up fights and commit acts of vandalism. EDL members give Nazi salutes on video and in photographs at rallies. In one video of an EDL march in Leicester, supporters attack an Asian-owned takeaway known as "Big John's," filled with innocent families; EDL members can be seen charging into the restaurant until the police are called. In another video, EDL supporters try to break into a café on Granby Street, Leicester. In addition, members of the EDL's Birmingham-division were photographed expressing their admiration and support for anti-Catholic, Ulster loyalist groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (a proscribed terrorist group that not only aims to keep Northern Ireland a part of the UK, but also desires to resurrect and enforce a model of Protestant supremacism there).
In 1999, Journalist Donal Macintyre made a BBC undercover documentary, focusing on a football hooligan firm known as the Chelsea Headhunters; the film exposed the Headhunters' support for neo-Nazism and militant Ulster loyalism, as well as their intentions to stir up violence against rival football fans at Chelsea matches. It is not surprising, therefore, that the EDL, given its extensive ties to football hooliganism, has so many far-right extremists in its ranks. The EDL leader's admiration for football hooliganism is also apparent in his use of his pseudonym "Tommy Robinson," the name of a man who became notorious for leading a football hooligan firm in the EDL leader's hometown, Luton.
In response to these findings, EDL admirers frequently claim that the EDL's policy is to expel football hooligans and other dubious individuals. These defenses are precisely the ones used by the largely neo-fascist British National Party (BNP) whenever its leader, Nick Griffin, is confronted over the presence of questionable individuals in his organization. Yet many EDL defenders do not take Nick Griffin at his word -- that the BNP is merely a force standing up against Islamisation that expels all racists and neo-Nazis from its ranks. Why, then, is there what looks like a double standard: a rush to take the EDL at its word?
Like many foreign supporters of the BNP, EDL sympathisers tend to rely on anecdotal evidence (for example, reprinted e-mails from the EDL's leader) and the EDL's sanitized website to defend the group. Consider, for instance, the leading Sikh member, Amit Singh, who is held up as proof that the organization is an ecumenical front standing up for human rights against the imposition of Shari'a law in Britain. To begin with, there are a handful of Sikh supporters of the BNP, such as Rajinder Singh, who believes that every Hindu and Sikh should back the BNP because of its anti-Islam stance. Does anyone see in Rajinder Singh evidence that the BNP is not a white supremacist organisation, or rather that the group merely uses him to boast its allegedly non-racist credentials? In any case, Amit Singh of the EDL is the same person who wrote these remarks on his Facebook page:
Mr. Singh, when first asked about these postings, never denied writing them, but asserted that he had been subjected to death threats from Islamists. Likewise, a British defender of the EDL by the pseudonym of "Esmerelda Weatherwax" asked me to understand Singh's anti-Muslim bigotry in light of "prejudice against Sikhs." To see the absurdity of such apologetics, substitute the word "Jew" for "Muslim" and imagine an innocent Palestinian who has been intimidated and abused by an extremist Israeli settler like Baruch Marzel, who is by no means representative of those living in the suburbs in the West Bank. Would this hypothetical Palestinian's remarks be any more "understandable" to Esmerelda Weatherwax? Of course not, and rightly so. The question moreover arises of why Amit Singh is even still in the EDL if the group has a policy of expelling bigots.
Regarding the EDL's apparent support for Israel, it should be noted that its declared advocacy for Israel is a tactic increasingly being employed by far-right parties across Europe to attract Jewish support and to conceal the far-right parties' anti-Semitic pasts.
Nick Griffin, confronted over his Holocaust denial on the BBC show Question Time in October 2009, tried to present his party as pro-Israel by claiming that the BNP was the only party in Britain that had stood firmly behind Israel during Israel response to attacks from Gaza in Operation Cast Lead. Austria's Freedom Party, many of whose members have questioned the existence of gas chambers in the Holocaust, has, in a similar vein, attempted to forge ties with settlers in the West Bank to bolster an image of having abandoned anti-Semitism. On openly Nazi forums like VNNuk, contributors tell of their enthusiasm for the EDL. As the blog Harry's Place points out, one poster commented:
Another contributor explained:
It should therefore be evident that the pro-Israel sentiments many EDL members claim to espouse are merely a façade. Even so, in October 2010, the EDL hosted Rabbi Nachum Shifren, from California, to speak at a rally. Shifren's bigotry is in evidence too, as illustrated by these remarks he made at the rally to the sound of cheers and applause:
As for the EDL's Jewish division, one can begin by observing that the BNP has token Jewish members and supporters too: notably a member called Patricia Richardson who served on the Epping Forest District Council. Richardson defends the BNP from charges of racism, affirming that it is the best party in Britain for combating Al-Qa'eda. Yet concerning the EDL, Mark Gardner firstly points out that the Jewish branch is only a small part of a far larger movement. Nonetheless, it should also be noted that the Jewish division has now forged ties with the Jewish Task Force, headed by convicted terrorist Chaim ben Pesach (also known as Victor Vancier). Vancier is banned from Israel because of his support for, and involvement in, the proscribed Kahanist political party, Kach, classified as a terrorist organisation by the United States. To be fair, a few EDL supporters on the group's internet forum were horrified about this alliance because of Vancier's terrorist past (not necessarily because of his Kahanist and far-right beliefs). Consequently, some of the EDL leadership threatened to sever links with and disband the Jewish division. Yet the present situation remains unclear: the EDL's Jewish division still maintains an active Facebook page, with neither side announcing a formal end of relations.
If EDL apologists did a fraction of the research they do on Islamic theology, all of this would be apparent to them. Three possible conclusions arise: they are (i) simply unaware of the extremism in the EDL, (ii) they know about it but conceal it on the principle of "the enemy's enemy is my friend," or (iii) they share the bigoted beliefs that predominate in the EDL.
Can anyone who professes to oppose Islamism in the name of defending human rights really support a group like the EDL? None of this is to approve of the "Unite Against Fascism's" (UAF, which recently ended its association with another anti-fascist group called "Hope not Hate" for criticizing the UAF's links to the pro-Islamist Socialist Workers' Party) confrontational methods against the EDL, or to say that all members of the EDL are racists and bigots. Rather, it is clear, from the evidence above, that the EDL is an organization that all genuine anti-Islamists would do well to steer clear of, if not denounce; and from which they should probably disassociate themselves.
The trends of neo-Nazism, Ulster loyalism and football hooliganism are far too prevalent for the group to be worth aligning with in any way.
One should probably also never assume that someone professing to oppose Islamism is an ally solely because of an alleged antipathy towards Islamist ideology, or opposition to Islamism risks being hijacked by far-right extremists -- and genuine anti-Islamism, that seeks to uphold the liberal-democratic values of Western Europe and the U.S., risks become a discredited force.
Instead, as a model for formulating a program to deal with Islamism in Europe, one might look towards Germany's new Freiheit party. The organization's leadership has friendly relations with Dutch M.P.Geert Wilders, currently on trial in the Netherlands on charges of trying to let his people know what the Qur'an advocates when interpreted literally as per traditional Islamic theology. Also, whereas the EDL supports an outright ban on the construction of mosques, according to a document outlining the Freiheit party's outlook, the group advocates:
Although such a measure for countering the entrenchment of Islamism in Europe does not incorporate unrealistic restrictions on civil liberties, a serious problem, remains unresolved:
Once a mosque is built, there is no way of controlling what goes on inside it.
Yet the Freiheit party probably brings forth a better starting point on how Europeans and other non-Muslims should respond to the presence of Islamism in their own countries.