There are troubling aspects in Demos’ recent report on English Defence League (EDL) members’ attitudes.
According to the press release for the report Inside the EDL by Jamie Bartlett and Mark Littler: ‘Supporters are characterised by intense pessimism about the UK’s future, worries about immigration and joblessness. This is often mixed with a proactive pride in Britain, British history and British values, which they see as being under attack from Islam. Although their demonstrations have often involved violence and racist chants, many members are democrats who are committed to peaceful protest and other forms of activism.’
What this seems to imply, and the report bears out, is that there are a number of strains within the EDL. It is wrong to write all members off as violent street fighters, there are a whole swathe of adherents who just footle around on Facebook from the confines of their bedrooms. And they may not really be hard-line racists so much as malcontents with cultural concerns. Whether it is useful to drive a wedge in this way between good and bad EDL members, or at least those within or beyond the pale, it is necessary to examine the whole methodology on which the report is based.
Not trusting qualitative research to provide useful information about the EDL, the researchers opted for a quantitative, questionnaire-based methodology – examining attitudes of EDL supporters. Demos used the questionable self-completion of an attitude questionnaire as the basis of their data, it also ‘selected’ its respondents in an entirely unscientific manner. They simply put an advert on the EDL Facebook page inviting people to complete the questions. So their whole sample was self-selecting and can hardly therefore be reliably representative (though they do concede there are limitations to the methodology).
Taking respondents at face value
But what is yet more disconcerting is the apparent lack of scepticism over some of the EDL members’ claims. This may be a limit of quantitative research methods, but it has led Demos to state that ‘[a]lthough outbreaks of violence at many of their demonstrations suggest the organisation includes violent elements, supporters cite “rule of law”, “individual freedom” and “respect for human rights” among their top values.’ Taking such self-examination at face value, the authors appear blind to the many reports suggesting that none of these values have a purchase with those members out defacing mosques, attacking Asian- and Muslim-run businesses, and attempting to stifle any opposing voices in a series of targeted attacks (for example against the Palestine Solidarity Campaign stall in Birmingham in June 2010; socialist stalls at Grey’s Monument in Newcastle in March 2011; a meeting on multiculturalism in Brighton in April 2011; a UAF meeting in Barking in May 2011; a trade union and labour movement book shop in Merseyside in May 2011; an Opressed gig in Bradford in June 2011).
Buying into democracy
The report also fails to take into account that the vaunting of Enlightenment beliefs is already the accepted signifier of the ‘liberal West’ as against a ‘repressive Islam’ – the stated purpose of having an EDL in the first place. The researchers neglect to consider the way that terms such as ‘rule of law’, ‘individual freedom’ and ‘respect for human rights’ are used in regular discourse as symbols of western political freedom, denoting an opposition to undemocratic enemy states that house Islamic extremism. Thus, these terms are used in an empty manner, both by the authors of this report and by the respondents to the questionnaire.
Take democracy. Uncritically, the report states: ‘Although there are some illiberal and intolerant sentiments voiced by some supporters … many members are in an important sense democrats.’ There is such a high level of trust in the respondents that the authors seem to find no need to question the authenticity of the professed affiliation to democratic values. The report fails to consider (in fact a superficial attitude survey would not allow it) what exactly these values mean to those who profess them. And in failing to consider the possibility that terms about democratic values could have different connotations for supporters of the EDL, it can be inferred that for the writers, too, these terms have become naturalised in denoting western opposition to Islamic extremism. The authors are in dangerous territory when they lean on a professed belief in democracy to paint a portrait of a tolerant wing in an organisation which has so often been associated with racial harassment.
Understanding ‘proactive pride’
The report makes the point that sections of the EDL membership define the danger of Islam in different ways: ‘While some directed abuse at all Muslims, others made more nuanced criticisms, condemning “political Islam” and “Muslim extremists”‘. So, while some members are outright racists, others are more nuanced in their racism. To take the declaration of an aversion to extremist or political Islam as an indicator of a more advanced and valid agenda is, again, too trusting. Such ‘sophisticated’ qualifiers are actually provided to EDL members by its top brass, the right-wing media and politicians and simply provide a justification for Islamophobia.
Further, to suggest as this report does, that racism and Islamophobia are ‘by no means true of all supporters’ is to simultaneously imply that there is an understandable, defensive, nationalist strain within the EDL that contains a legitimate concern. Legitimate because it mirrors and is mirrored by institutionalised anti-Islamic sentiment, in the right-wing media? This is a ridiculous tautology. EDL members are constantly told that immigration is the reason for high levels of unemployment, and the Daily Express, Daily Star and Daily Mail informs them that their national culture is at risk from an encroaching Islam. To use these sources of nationalist fury as markers of legitimate concern in the EDL is to accept the naturalised racism towards Islam that holds so much currency in the media and in mainstream politics.