How can we marry the English Defence League’s professed liberalism with the reality on the ground?
There is something of a disjuncture between how the EDL portrays itself as an organisation and how it actually operates. Though it states on its website that ‘[t]he English Defence League (EDL) is a human rights organisation’ that opposes an Islam that ‘runs counter to all that we hold dear within our British liberal democracy’, the actions of some of its members suggest otherwise.
A tolerant organisation?
In order to evaluate how far the actions of EDL supporters differ from the organisation’s official mandate, it is useful to examine the mission statement on its website. The text explicitly states that the EDL is a tolerant organisation: ‘Everyone … is supposed to be equal in the eyes of the law. The EDL is therefore keen to draw its support from people of all races, all faiths, all political persuasions, and all lifestyle choices.' The EDL, it is implied, does not house racism; it is only against a particular form of Islam. It is even supportive of those Muslims who are suffering oppression under a radicalised Islam: ‘British Muslims should be able to safely demand reform of their religion … Radical Islam keeps British Muslims fearful and isolated’. However, by simply looking at EDL Facebook pages, it becomes apparent that the nuances laid out in its manifesto are lost on some of its members and supporters. Muslims are blanket-labelled as ‘ragheads’, the middle-East referred to as ‘p**iworld’, Barack Obama, it is suggested, ‘should be a slave’. These comments are even put forth by those posting as the representatives of official divisions, such as the ‘EDL English Defence League Jewish Division (Official)’. This suggests that for some within the EDL, including some of those who hold relatively high-status positions, a candid form of racism exists, under which the ideological nuances laid out in the mission statement are lost, and indicates that racism is sometimes directed towards the black community as well.
One of the contentious issues raised in evaluating the EDL is the extent to which the content of Facebook can be used as a source. In the wake of the massacre in Norway on 22 July 2011, EDL leader Stephen Lennon appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight in order to dismiss claims that Anders Behring Breivik had links to the organisation (for more information, read the IRR’s briefing paper, ‘Breivik, the conspiracy theory, and the Oslo massacre’ [pdf file, 444kb]). In the interview, Lennon said that the material on Facebook did not indicate facts about the organisation. He states: ‘That’s not our website … that’s on Facebook. If we keep reverting back to Facebook where … anyone can go under any name and put anything, that is no evidence against our organisation in any way. You will not find them sort of things on our website’. This suggests an anxiety over the loss of control of the EDL’s image which the use of social media brings. However, the organisation relies on Facebook to an extent in providing an administrative framework for connecting its members. Lennon’s claims that the evidence of racism on the EDL Facebook pages are at the hands of an unaffiliated rabble with no real links to the organisation proper are countered by those instances of racist messaging posted under the usernames denoting official divisions (unless those posting are imposters). So, on the one hand, while the EDL’s outreach is furthered by the use of Facebook, the ability of social media to reveal the private voice of the organisation’s constituent members is countered with a distancing and delegitimising of the public forum and the public voice.
Take, for example, Facebook’s role in EDL recruitment. In March this year, it became clear that children from Stafford Borough’s Blessed William Howard High School had set up the EDL’s Stafford division Facebook page, and used it to recruit other pupils. This is not an isolated case. The Dover division page features a recruitment call, urging people to ‘tell your friends and family to take a stand’, in order to protect ‘OUR town’. While Facebook operates as a way of getting an unfiltered message across to a potential audience, it is also denigrated as invalid and not credible by Casuals United (CU), a group comprising of members of football ‘firms’ who are sympathetic to the EDL’s mission and share a very similar set of values with regards to Islam and British democracy, although they firmly state that they are not the EDL.
It is worth noting that the awareness that Facebook is being monitored has led to a different mode of use. In a post on the CU blog from 6 September 2011, it is claimed that ‘The Casuals United FB group is used only for posting links, and occasionally to post disinformation.' While it certainly functions as a way of disseminating information to a potential audience, Facebook may also be being used as a tactical tool to divert the attention of outsiders towards irrelevant or false material.
A human rights organisation?
Another form of distancing that occurs on the blog is from individual members or supporters of the EDL who have become involved in cases that challenge the credibility of its public image as a human rights organisation. The CU blog denies having explicit links to the EDL, although their output suggests otherwise. The blog provides regular information and comment on EDL related activities, and is to some extent responsible for portraying the way in which the individual is related to the organisation as a body. As the EDL has developed, it has come under heavier public scrutiny and Stephen Lennon has been asked to explain and take responsibility for the actions of its members and supporters, and for its contribution to the social and cultural makeup of the UK. The line now is that any violence that occurred during formative demonstrations was not down to people who shared an ideological and moral affinity with the EDL, but was the result of the interference and involvement of rogue players: ‘The EDL has come a long way since the early days when large numbers of people with no interest in our cause used to come to our protests and try to cause trouble.' Any violent parties or troublemakers are recast as people with no interest in the cause, their connections to the movement are denied and their allegiance to the EDL is rejected. The CU blog attempts to convince its audience (largely supporters of the cause) that violence at EDL demonstrations and marches happens despite attempts from the top to prevent it.
Despite the attempt to portray the organisation as fundamentally peaceful and acting out of a moral necessity, there are well-documented cases of violence being used both spontaneously and tactically, at an individual and organisational level. Organisational flash-mob violence occurs in two distinct forms; one stems from Islamophobic motives, and is aimed at the supposed roots of Islamist organisations. The other form is aimed at those who are perceived in EDL circles as being opponents – organisations concerned with opposing racism and supporting those targeted by it.
Examples of attacks aimed at Muslim-affiliated or Asian targets include the following incidents:
- The sustained attack and desecration of mosques, of which the IRR has gathered information of sixteen attacks on mosques and Islamic institutions between February and July in 2011.
- On 15 June 2010, 100 EDL members clashed with the Muslims Against Crusades group in Barking, shouting ‘scum’, ‘Muslim bombers off our streets’ and ‘Allah, Allah, who the fuck is Allah’.
- On 4 October 2010, forty supporters descended upon a KFC in Blackburn trialling Halal meat. The action was intended to send a message to the chain to stop selling Halal products.
- On 9 October 2010, during a planned demonstration, a breakaway group of EDL members attacked the Asian-run Big John’s Restaurant in Leicester, smashing the shop’s windows and threatening customers.
- On 2 July 2011, forty people carrying EDL banners surrounded the home of Muslim MEP Sajjad Karim and attempted to intimidate him (this from the CU blog: ‘Sajjad Karim who voted against the labelling of Halal meat produts thought he was going to have a quiet sunny afternoon with his family in the family home but little did he know that just around the corner the EDL were gathering').
- On 15 July 2011, EDL members racially harassed young Asian men, trying to start a fight on a football pitch in Blackburn usually used by the Asian community. Nicholas John Smyth, 26, later pleaded guilty to using racially-aggravated threatening behavior.
- On 31 July 2011, a Kurdish family were forced to barricade themselves inside their kebab shop in Plymouth after four men shouted abuse while chanting ‘EDL’. The men, aged 27, 28, 33 and 43, threw a glass at the family. They were arrested at the scene, two on suspicion of affray, one for threatening behaviour and one for suspected criminal damage.
Such violence and intimidation is entirely at odds with the values of a ‘human rights organisation’, as supporters of the EDL aim their efforts at physically breaching the personal safety of individuals and organisations. While the EDL may be adamant of its dedication to human rights in its official statements, these attacks suggest that this protection towards vulnerable individuals may not be the reason for the actions of a number of its supporters.
In addition, there are examples of tactical attacks on organisations of the Left, anti-racist groups, and groups supporting Palestinian rights. These include the following incidents:
- On 12 June 2010, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign stall in Birmingham was attacked and peace activists physically assaulted by members of the EDL who shouted racist and Islamophobic abuse. Fifteen members of the EDL were made to leave Birmingham city centre.
- On 22 September 2010, ten EDL members attacked a Socialist Worker Party stall in Newcastle city centre. They have since appeared in court charged with affray and unlawful violence.
- On 5 April 2011, between thirty and forty people chanting EDL slogans and carrying an EDL flag attacked a meeting on multiculturalism in Brighton.
- On 7 May 2011, fifteen men carrying an EDL flag descended upon News From Nowhere, a trade union and labour movement book shop in Merseyside, and attempted to intimidate the staff.
- On 19 May 2011, around twenty people, with their faces covered, chanting ‘EDL’ attacked an office hosting a Unite Against Fascism meeting in Barking, smashing windows.
- On 19 June 2011, a group of around fifteen people chanting ‘EDL’ attacked a Rage Against Racism gig in Leeds. Three men were arrested for affray after rocks and bottles were thrown at the crowd. Two people were injured, and one man had his teeth knocked out.
Clearly, more recent EDL attacks have been against those groups and organisations it sees as acting as an obstacle in the way of the EDL’s primary target. There is also evidence of implicit and explicit threats sent to organisations that the EDL perceives as undermining the cultural homogeneity of Britain. Stephen Lennon for instance sent the following message to city councils: ‘Any council that does not keep the word Christmas in the annual celebrations and opts for Winter Festival, out of the politically correct appeasement of others to the detriment of our traditions, will have their town/city visited by the English Defence League throughout the following year.' There were similar warnings to the Ammerdown Centre in Somerset after it put on a course entitled ‘Understanding Islam’. The Centre published the text of a letter in its August 2011 newsletter: ‘The EDL have requested that unless you cancel this course the EDL will rally all its members together, 10,000, and hold a peaceful protest at the venue, whilst the course is being held.’
As well as such pressure in the organisation’s name, there are also numerous instances of freelance direct action at the hands of individual supporters. Such instances include:
- On 27 July 2010, John Broomfield, who described himself as the head of the EDL in Dorset, was arrested with six others connected to the EDL. The group were arrested in Bournemouth for planning to construct a bomb. The men were allegedly planning to blow up a mosque. Police were forced to open fire on Broomfield’s vehicle.
- On 26 September 2010, Ashley Wilson threatened staff at an Indian restaurant in Bridgewater. After asking if they were Muslim, he said ‘I’m going to cut your face … because I’m EDL’. Wilson was ordered to carry out 100 hours of unpaid work and was fined £250 in total.
- On 24 October 2010, Bryan Kelso, Christopher Long and Brian Bristow assaulted Muslims at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park after attending an EDL rally.
- On 11 November 2010, Steven James Vasey and Anthony Donald Smith received year-long jail sentences after daubing racist graffiti on a mosque and two Asian run businesses. ‘EDL’ was among the terms sprayed onto the buildings.
- On 15 February 2011, a memorial bridge in honour of a girl who died crossing the road in Detling in Kent was defaced with graffiti such as ‘EDL kills Muslims’. The EDL were asked to comment by Kent News, but failed to respond.
- On 19 September 2011, Wayne and Darren Edwards caused a scene in a Turkish kebab shop and began chants of ‘EDL’. The incident backfired when the Turkish staff chased the men out into the street.
- On 24 September 2011, there was an instance of public disorder and threatening behaviour on a train from Sheffield to Norwich. The group were chanting ‘EDL’.
These cases appear to show an indiscriminate violence against Muslim targets in general rather than specifically targeting those perceived to be ‘radical Islamists’ – as the EDL’s programme states that as ‘a human rights organisation … we must always protect against the unjust assumption that all Muslims are complicit in or somehow responsible for these [radical-Islamist] crimes.’ Violence is not, however, simply connected to unimportant, low-ranking members and supporters. There are a string of violent incidents connected to high-ranking members of the EDL. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (EDL founder, aka Tommy Robinson) was charged with assaulting a police officer in November last year, has been convicted for football-firm-related violence outside Liverpool Street station, and has also been convicted of assaulting a fellow EDL member. Joel Titus, leader of the EDL’s youth wing, was charged with affray after a pre-arranged brawl between Brentford and Leyton Orient fans in Central London in May. He was given an ASBO and banned from future EDL marches.
The violence of EDL members is not simply a new tactic against minority ethnic communities and the institutions that support them; it is part of a tradition of violence associated with ‘football firms’, and history of organised clashes. The EDL has a strong affiliation with CU, an organisation made up of people with a commitment to bringing organised violence to football matches. There are reports by Matthew Taylor in the Guardian of the EDL even attempting to bring together rival ‘firms’ to put aside their differences and unite for the greater good of the cause: ‘The pub was packed with rival football gangs from across the Midlands and the north of England. Twice, fighting broke out as old rivalries failed to be subdued by the new enemy – Islam.' And there are parallels between the organisation of football firm violence and the way the EDL conducts itself: a group of men willing to travel the length and breadth of the country in order to prove their loyalty. This commitment to football is then applied to an arena where the clash is not regional but racial and cultural. Alan Lake, a Christian fundamentalist businessman who has bankrolled the EDL, has admitted his admiration for the strategic use of football fans: ‘[they] are a potential source of support. They are a hoi polloi that gets off their backsides and travels to a city and they are available before and after matches.' The ranks of people with a history of hooliganism in the EDL are admitted to openly in EDL and CU circles. With such commitment, the EDL presents a mobile, readily available threat.
Democratic values in the EDL
A recent development has been the targeting of anti-cuts movements, the Occupy movement and trade unions. According to a recent Guardian article, the Infidels, an EDL splinter group, have stated that ‘We have decided to put all our efforts into opposing everything you do regardless of the issue at hand, it’s your organisations we oppose … Every event you hold will be a potential target along with your meetings, fund raisers and social events’. This stated opposition suggests that for this faction of EDL sympathisers, the freedom of people to carry out democratic rights is not particularly important. This is despite the EDL’s declaration of its commitment to democracy in its mission statement, and its pledge to ‘Promot[e] Democracy And The Rule Of Law By Opposing Sharia’. These attacks are not against Sharia, but on members of the Left that are also taking part in democratic processes, but to different ends. Examples of these recent attacks include the following incidents:
- On 29 October 2011, a group of supporters of the EDL, the Infidels and the National Front gathered in Newcastle city centre to harass the Occupy Newcastle camp. At 4am around twenty to thirty members returned to physically attack the occupation.
- On 11 November 2011, police arrested 179 EDL members in Central London after repeated threats against the anti-capitalist Occupy London camp.
- On 11 November 2011, ten EDL supporters attempted to attack the north-west regional headquarters of Unite in Liverpool.
- On 19 November 2011, Occupy Bristol claimed its camp was attacked by Bristol’s EDL.
Those people attacking these organisations are acting illegally, attempting to enforce their idea of the law on people exercising their democratic right to protest. The announced direction of attacks against left wing protestors not only contravenes that right, but is also condemned by the EDL itself in its mission statement: ‘If … cultures promote anti-democratic ideas and refuse to accept the authority of our nation’s laws, then the host nation should not be bowing to these ideas in the name of “cultural sensitivity”.’ Although written explicitly about ‘foreign’ cultures, the statement condemns anti-democratic vigilantism. The statement could just as easily be levelled at the organisation’s own supporters who, it could be argued, see themselves as doing a job that the police won’t do.
There has, of late, been a tension growing between the public front and private core of the EDL. As the group has gained notoriety, earning public appearances and platforms in the national media, there have been orders from on high to clean up its image in an attempt to appear respectable and appeal to a broader audience (see CU blogs above). This has involved orders to refrain from violence and explicit racism, alienating a core of more openly violent and racist members who see the changes as a softening of the EDL’s mandate. The following comment was posted on the EDL Merseyside Division’s Facebook page, under the username of the division proper: ‘This is Merseyside Division, not the EDL’s. We write our own rules and vote for our own! We do not follow the EDL’s rules on Multiculturalism as we fully understand its all S**TE and has failed and will continue to fail!' So, while their insistence on wishing for peaceful protests led their publicity team to decry violence as being at the hands of a few rogue players, there is recent evidence to suggest disenchantment in some of the EDL’s core supporters. The EDL Merseyside division has reportedly split from the rest of the organisation because of a perceived loss of racist values, demanding the right to be more honest about their motivations and goals, and joining more openly extreme-Right organisations.
This reaction responds to the EDL’s attempt to showcase its openness and liberal values. It promotes the existence of its Jewish Division, its LGBT Division, and has even carried out a failed attempt to open a Sikh Division in order to prove that its aversion is not to brown skin but to radical Islam, not to race but religion. In order to establish its tolerant credentials, the EDL had Guramit Singh as its Sikh spokesman. However, this measure is openly criticised by the Sikh community. If such attempts at showcasing diversity have alienated certain constituents of the organisation, this should not lead to the conclusion, as it has for some commentators, that ‘the far right is not on the rise in the UK’. Rather, these splinter groups are showing the increased disregard of some EDL supporters for the public multicultural face of the far right, choosing instead to join organisations in which they can express racist beliefs more openly. This has resulted in some of the EDL’s Facebook admin to abandon the public image that their mission statement dictates, attempting to bring the alienated constituents back into the fold by embracing the rhetoric of white supremacy.
Recent reports have suggested that the EDL is in trouble, with factional divisions threatening the unity of the organisation and members joining other nationalist groups, leaving the current state of the organisation unclear. What is clear, however, is that the EDL has a significant number of members who are willingly mobile, with a record of violent behaviour, and a less nuanced approach towards Islam than that which the EDL promotes publicly. Whether the EDL grows or implodes remains to be seen, but the violent targeting of the Muslim community and members of the Left that some of its members have demonstrated could remain a threat.