Racists on our streets
15 September 2009
The past few days have seen the media and political spotlight shone on the English Defence League, a new actor on the extremist scene, but one that plays some very old lines. As Communities Minister John Denham pointed out in Saturday's Guardian, "The tactic of trying to provoke a response in the hope of causing wider violence and mayhem is long established on the far-right and among extremist groups." The EDL's demonstration outside Harrow Mosque on Friday was a transparent attempt to incite a race riot, and the fact that it largely failed to do so, despite the actions of some Muslim youths, can be put down mainly to the admirable response of the mosque itself.
The Guardian also had a lengthy profile of the EDL, and there are a series of articles on the Hope not Hate website which go into the EDL's origins and structures in great detail. In particular, they highlight the ambiguous position that the BNP holds in regards to this new combination of football hooligan gangs and street racists. The BNP, and the NF before it, used to openly embrace football hooligans as useful muscle with a fierce nationalist pride. However, demonstrations and punch ups no longer fit with the image that the BNP tries to project, and so the EDL has filled a gap in far right politics that the BNP voluntarily vacated in its pursuit of votes.
Although the message of the EDL is focused on Muslims - all of them, not just extremist groups as they claim - nobody should doubt that the politics of both the EDL and the BNP is still driven by the familiar bigotry and hatred of the far right, with a new language and target to fit with the times. There has been debate elsewhere about whether this change from attacking all minorities, to attacking Muslims, represents a genuine shift from racism to Islamophobia, or is simply a political ploy (I am aware that I have oversimplified this debate). My personal view is that it is a bit of both, and that such distinctions miss the point. Inasmuch as 'Paki' was a generic term for anyone with a brown skin in the 1970s, so now 'Muslim' serves much the same purpose for racists today. Far right politics has followed the blurring of boundaries between race and culture along with the rest of society. And it is also very easy to over-intellectualise what is essentially an emotional politics based on ignorance; particularly where the street racism of the EDL is concerned. They hate Muslims because they are brown, and because they are different, and because they follow a strange religion and build new mosques to practice it in; and for those who need to feel that there is more to their bigotry than just the fear and hatred of difference, it is because of the conspiracy theory that Muslims are trying to take over society. Conspiracy theories are the bedrock of racist politics. Modern antisemitism is based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a hoax which tried to 'prove' that Jews were plotting to take over the world. No similar text exists to 'convict' Muslims of actively plotting world domination, so instead, some people - and here the term 'Islamophobia' is apposite - try to argue that the Quran is just such a document.
If you look beyond the specific language then the similarities should be obvious: this is the politics of hatred and division, which has nothing positive to offer any part of society. The fact that Muslims are the current target simply means that it is Muslims who should be the recipients of anti-racist solidarity. Nor should anybody be distracted by the bizarre sight of EDL demonstrators waving Israeli flags. They are no friends of the Jewish community, or of Israel.
The size of the EDL is still, in terms of the history of street politics, very small indeed; the events outside Harrow mosque last week were hardly on the scale of the Southall race riots of 30 years ago. But a wider view should deter any complacency. At the beginning of this decade, the BNP were electoral no-hopers without a single council seat anywhere in the UK. Osama bin Laden was a name known only to counter-terrorism mavens and Omar Bakri Mohammed was dismissed by many as a media clown. Today, the BNP has seats in Brussels, London's City Hall and council chambers up and down the country; antisemitic incidents this year are at an all time high; and we have seen the latest group of British-born Muslims pass through the courts, convicted of the most terrible terrorist crimes, many of whom (although not in this particular case) have been influenced by the teachings of Omar Bakri. The shadows of the twin towers destroyed on 9/11 loom large over this landscape, in which extremists of various kinds feed off each other. The Guardian describes how the protest against returning British troops by former al-Muhajiroun members in Luton earlier this year, was the catalyst for the formation of the EDL. The value of allowing those Islamist extremists in Luton to exercise their free speech has to be questioned, when the main consequence of their demonstration has been to incite anti-Muslim hatred. The EDL has a series of demonstrations planned around the country, starting in Manchester and Leeds next month. We have already seen enough to know that the primary purpose of these demonstrations is to incite violence and hatred, and that they should be banned.