A recent TV programme on the English Defence League (EDL), created around an extremely problematic and dangerous framework, has won new recruits to the EDL.
The EDL is boasting about its new recruits since Channel 4 aired Proud and Prejudiced on Monday 27 February, a documentary based on the shadowing for one year of Luton-based EDL founder Tommy Robinson and Sayful Islam, head of Muslims Against Crusades (MAC). The fly-on-the-wall style film presented the emergence of the EDL as a simple reaction to the council’s ban on a counter-protest against Sayful Islam’s demonstration against Luton troops’ homecoming parade in March 2009. Using interviews with both leaders, the film framed the EDL in a ‘two tribes’ narrative, presenting a serious political issue as a tantrum between Sayful and Tommy, two schoolboys with a grudge. Extremist English nationalism (in fact born out of ultra- patriotism and support for ‘our boys’ in Afghanistan and Iraq) was reduced to an hour-long war of words between two fighters – a framework leading the viewer to expect (and seek) a winner.
Let’s weigh in the contenders then. Both are given the chance to express and explain themselves straight to camera. This may seem like a good idea in the interest of fairness and entertainment. But when the film utterly refuses to critically evaluate what is being alleged by the protagonists, the truth in each view-point will finally be measured by any viewer in the articulacy and likeability of these two particular speakers. The problem is that while Tommy Robinson is assured, eloquent and plausible, Sayful Islam isn’t. When the pair are compared, a judgement that such a framework invites, Robinson and his EDL emerge victorious, appearing at least coherent and measured in response to an inarticulate and fanatical Sayful.
In fact it is somewhat ridiculous to make an analogy between the EDL and MAC. Sayful Islam is a media opportunist with only a handful of followers. The same cannot be said for the EDL, which has, according to some sources, 25-35,000 supporters. And Sayful Islam is clearly not a learned scholar or representative spokesman for Islam (which is explained in the programme by a ‘moderate’ local Imam). Robinson makes his case as the EDL’s representative with a polished touch. Dropping words such as ‘integration’ and ‘multiculturalism’ in all the right places, he paints the EDL’s mission as an exercise in community cohesion. The accusation that there is a racist EDL support base is swiftly dealt with. The presence of the camera gives Robinson an excellent opportunity to show the nation how tolerant the EDL really is, denouncing those nasty racist members by defiantly embracing his Sikh spokesman. Similarly, Robinson is able to explain away all his past mistakes, his BNP membership for instance, by admitting to them so openly, admitting he was wrong and telling his audience that he is ‘no angel’. The film does not challenge Robinson’s portrait of himself, his group’s beliefs or the members’ actions. There is no equivalent to the Imam speaking from a white working-class organisation.
Perhaps the makers of Proud and Prejudiced think that by giving Robinson enough rope he will hang himself. But this works in a very limited way. The polished PR spin falls when Robinson gets drunk and tells a Muslim security guard that not all Muslims are bad, ‘just most of them’. However, the film then follows Robinson to the EDL’s Tower Hamlets demonstration. Because of an Asbo ban he goes in disguise (as a Rabbi). The film’s failure to address Robinson’s line about being a victim allows this disguise to have the desired effect: Robinson is now seen as an outlaw. By charting his evasion of arrest (slipping through police lines and shouting ‘catch me if you can’), the film validates Robinson’s constant refrain: that the political classes don’t want people like him to be heard. Ultimately, the failure of the narrative to confront this view, gives him a platform that, on that day, the criminal justice system attempted to deny him.
Anti-fascist critics of this programme have pointed to its failure to foreground the racist violence of some EDL members and the violent past of Robinson himself. But the programme was never about exploring the wider impact of the extremism peddled by either the EDL or MAC. To expect that is to miss the programme’s essential framework/premise. It is not just that two protagonists are having a spat, but that the two groups – of EDL members and Sayfal Islam’s followers – are portrayed as as bad as each other. ‘A plague on both your houses’ will be the best view that can be gleaned here. Over and over again when the two ‘leaders’ are not being juxtaposed, their supporters are. Two camps on the streets – one young, white, male and angry-eyed, the other heavily veiled (female) heavily bearded (male) – shouting ugly abuse at each other. But held back from doing much damage by that line of ever patient, ever impartial British Bobbies.