An eyewitness analyses the English and Danish Defence Leagues’ failure to mobilise a pan-European movement against Islam.
One of the largest police presences in recent Danish history was ready and waiting when extreme-right and Islamophobic groups from all over Europe met on 31 March in Denmark’s second largest city, Aarhus, to demonstrate against Islam. The organisers had planned several days of meetings ending with a demonstration. The Danish Defence League (DDL), a small offshoot of the English Defence League (EDL), had hoped for up to 2,000 participants, and since a counter- demonstration was to take place at the same time only a few hundred metres away, the police were not taking any chances.
In fact, against all the organisers’ hype and hope, when the demonstration against Islam was at its largest there were no more than a couple of hundred people present in Mølleparken in Aarhus. Of these, according to the Danish police, many were journalists and baffled spectators. Even fewer people could hear the speeches, since the sound system did not work and a podium had not been prepared.
But the counter-demonstration gathered under the slogan ‘Aarhus for Diversity’, mobilised more than 5,000 people, including supporters from unions, left-wing organisations, the radical left group Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), and groups of local Palestinians from Aarhus.
There were several clashes between the two demonstrations and between ‘Aarhus for Diversity’ and the police. A total of eighty-nine people were arrested including two from the DDL group. Five of those arrested were charged with offences relating to violence, everyone else was released.
Trying to build a united pan-European movement against Islam
Defence league branches from Germany, the United Kingdom, Hungary, Finland, Bulgaria, France and Poland, anti-Islam groups from Denmark and Norway, and Vederfølner (a nationalist Danish group) came together in Aarhus with the intention of creating a united European movement against Islam. ‘Kicking Islam out of Europe’, one speaker simplified it for the audience.
This extreme-right campaign took place a few weeks before the court case begins against Anders Behring Breivik, the extreme rightwing Norwegian, who killed seventy-seven people, mainly young Social Democrats, in Norway on 22 July 2011. Breivik was a member of the Norwegian Defence League (NDL) under the cover name ‘Sigurd Jorsalfar’, but today the NDL and other defence leagues are quick to distance themselves from Breivik, while they also officially denounce racism and Nazism. According to NDL’s chair Ronny Alte, Breivik left the group in February 2011. The counter-demonstration included a large group of anti-fascists from Oslo, who knew much about Breivik’s membership and that he had not been kicked out of the NDL but had left on his own initiative.
Same rhetoric as Breivik’s
The anti-Islamic groups, which met before the demonstration in Aarhus, do their best not to appear extreme or abrasive by officially distancing themselves from racism and Nazism. The DDL, for instance, claims on its website: ‘DDL is a popular movement, regardless of which political opinion you have, or what ethnicity you belong to, you are welcome with us. The only thing we require from you that you also think Islamisation is going on and that it is bad for our country and the rest of Europe.’ A minute’s silence was observed at their meeting for the victims of the mass murder in Toulouse. Yet, shortly into the minute, shouting broke the silence as did the sudden loud rendering of John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’ from a neighbouring open window.
Despite the words against racism, DDL uses the same hateful rhetoric as Anders Behring Breivik. The fact that participants have personal convictions for racism make the group’s rhetoric less than convincing as does the 6-minute video recording on YouTube from inside the bus that, under difficult circumstances, took half of the anti-Islamic demonstrators away from the scene of demonstration under heavy police escort.
DDL’s Facebook profile holds photos with anti-Muslim messages, including a photo of a nuclear mushroom cloud with the text: ‘Some forms of cancer need to be treated with the proper radiation – Islam is one of them.’ This association was also made by Danish People Party’s member of Parliament, Louise Frevert, on her website years ago. Other pictures show the Danish flag, bacon and pigs with the appeal ‘no surrender’, and a picture emphasising, ‘it is not too late – fight Islam!’ In yet other illustrations themes are drawn from Vikings, coat of arms, and the Danish flag (Dannebrog) appear again and again. On related websites and profiles of these groups, members’ photos appear with a variety of light weaponry or tools for direct fighting, which does not convey the peaceful, democratic intentions promised by the demonstration speakers and spokespeople.
In fact the DDL’s first spokesperson, Bo Vilbrand (Bo Rightwing), had to step down under pressure from the English Defence League because he was to appear in court on charges of racism. The next spokesperson, Kasper Mortensen, had to step down when he was imprisoned in February for violence. The current spokesperson, Philip Traulsen, was, until 2006, a member of the extreme-right, controversial Danish Front and is today engaged in Denmark’s National Front, which seeks to organise former members of the Nazi group ‘Blood and Honour’. Denmark’s National Front became known last year when it was revealed that it had received training in the use of weapons in Russia. Traulsen has also formerly been active in the now-dissolved group of Free Danish Nationalists. In Britain the leader of the EDL, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon alias Tommy Robinson, former member of the British National Party, has been convicted of charges involving violence.
Potential fissure in the DDL
The issue of links to and bonding with Nazi groups is a huge bone of contention within the DDL. The leadership wants to get rid of the bad image of being extreme-right and racist, and therefore claims that the DDL works to promote human rights. But the reality is that the extreme Right in Denmark is small and members float around in one inchoate mix. Anti-Muslim groups are clearly gaining ground at the expense of those who stick to anti-Semitic themes. This difference is shown up most sharply when Israel is regarded by some as an ally, a kind of buffer against the Muslim world, while others in the network are deeply anti-Semitic.
According to the EDL official website, the Jewish Division (and the state of Israel) has a crucial role to play within the EDL. At the demonstration in Aarhus you could see a couple of Israeli flags. At one point during the demonstrations, an anti-Islamist, Zionist flag-carrier ran provocatively towards the anti-fascist counter-demonstration. Anti-fascists somehow seized the flag, tore it apart and tried to set it on fire. One anti-Islamist sympathiser immediately got himself into a fight, when he protested that anti-fascists were attacking the Jewish people and being anti-Semitic.
Yet, one should not ignore anti-Islam’s potential allies, not so much in the state of Israel, but among the strong, Jewish intellectual presence in the powerful Euro-American neo-conservatism current, which shares some of the same ideas about the incompatibility of the West and Islam. Thus, the new leader of the EDL’s Jewish Division, James Cohen, is a good friend of the powerful Danish Free Speech Society that has Daniel Pipes as one of its interlocutors and consultants. He is of course, like others involved in the ‘West against Islam’ narrative, an extremist and anti-Islamist. The Free Speech Society is known for its active role, among others, in the Muhammad cartoon crisis in 2005 and 2006. The Danish People’s Party is strongly represented in the leadership of this anti-Islamic association.
However, several Jewish leaders have pointed out that it is only the most extreme Zionists or totally ignorant Jews with short memories who could lend their presence to a group such as the EDL. The ever-present elements of neo-Nazi sympathy within the DDL make the process of ‘Balkanisation’ of the extremist right in Denmark a realistic future scenario.
Read the IRR’s European Briefing Paper No.5: Breivik, the conspiracy theory and the Oslo massacre here (pdf file, 444kb)