Pause a moment to register two unloved anniversaries. This spring marks a decade since the first anti-Muslim street movement, the English Defence League (EDL), emerged on British streets. Slowly but surely, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA), now a year old, has followed in similar footsteps – making many of the same bad decisions. This plus ca change isn’t the whole story though, and merits some revisiting, as is made clear in our forthcoming report on the new ‘Football Lads’ for Faith Matters.
Sparked by abuse from Islamist extremists in Luton on 10 March 2009 toward 200 parading Anglian regiment soldiers returning from Iraq, what became the EDL by spring of that year took most observers completely by surprise. Looking back, the direct-action challenge the EDL and its successor movements – local and national variations, like the Scottish and Welsh defence leagues, through to Pegida and the Yellow Vests today – has posed is substantial, both in Britain and abroad. It demands fresh responses from civil society to policing agencies, and much else besides.
These direct-action social movements have piqued more established far right groups, such as the now-moribund British National Party, which banned members from attending EDL marches. In large measure, this was due to the EDL’s initial novelty. Led by football casuals and (mostly) disaffected, white working-class Britons, the EDL offered an ‘in your face’ political challenge organised almost wholly via internet and mobile phone. As is now clear, the street-based challenge it represents continues to be one of anti-Muslim hostility. The latter has been documented extensively by the leading third sector monitoring organisation, Tell MAMA, which has been at the forefront of combatting anti-Muslim prejudice in Britain.
It is precisely this ‘mainstreaming’ of anti-Muslim prejudice that is detectable in every march, and on every social media page affiliated with these groups.
In no small part, the EDL was responsible for enabling conversational anti-Muslim prejudice, or Islamophobia to pass what one Conservative minister has termed the ‘dinner table test’ in contemporary Britain. It is precisely this ‘mainstreaming’ of anti-Muslim prejudice that is detectable in every march, and on every social media page affiliated with these groups. For a while, the EDL made half-hearted attempts to distinguish Islamists – who politicise, simplify and pervert the Muslim faith through ideological extremism – from Britain’s Muslim communities, comprising some 5% of the population. Yet these distinctions collapsed under the raucous weight of boozy confrontations and inflammatory speeches, which aligned all Muslims with militant jihadi perversions of their faith.
The ringleader of this religious-based bigotry emerging from the EDL was a renowned bully and multi-convicted criminal, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson), now considered “a bona fide superstar of the international far right” by the anti-fascist campaign group, Hope not Hate. This conflation of terrorists and all Muslims in Britain was identified in the speech of Yaxley-Lennon in one of the first academic studies of the EDL in 2011:
EVERY SINGLE MUSLIM watching this on YouTube, on 7/7 you got away with killing and maiming British citizens, you got away with it. You had better understand that we have built a network from one end of this country to the other end, and we will not tolerate it, and the Islamic community will feel the full force of the English Defence League if we see any of our citizens killed, maimed or hurt on British soil ever again.
Yaxley-Lennon has branched into broader far right terrain since then, becoming a ‘grooming gangs’ advisor to Gerard Batten’s UKIP. But he remains first and foremost, a baiter and discriminator against Muslims, tarring millions through the actions of hundreds.
Let us be blunt: the threat posed by jihadi Islamist terrorists and their ideological sympathisers is serious. Yet no one needs these bullies to tell us that. We can listen to the security services, or to politicians, or to virtually any media outlet to tell us that the conflict against Islamist extremism is a top priority. This is hardly news being covered up or minimised. But above all, these are separate issues. And this is textbook prejudice, but targeting by religion rather than race (or another protected category of minority group; such as those with disabilities, Jews or LGBT persons).
Any other stick emerging in the news… [has] been cited as evidence of a deviant, suspect community of fifth-columnists living amongst Britons while, at the same time, trying to subvert their culture and society.
More to the point, these groups are deafeningly silent when far right terrorists are convicted, which comprises a substantial – and growing – proportion of terrorist plots, attacks, and convictions. Instead, an obsession with Muslims as the alleged ‘enemy within’ motivates these street-based far right groups. Not only are Muslims, as an undifferentiated mass of ‘others’, accused of abetting terrorism and political violence; any and all grooming and CSE scandals containing Muslim perpetrators – or any other stick emerging in the news to beat Muslims with, from eating Halal food to wearing religious dress – have been cited as evidence of a deviant, suspect community of fifth-columnists living amongst Britons while, at the same time, trying to subvert their culture and society. Implicating all Muslims and castigating all difference, without distinction, is the very hallmark of bigotry.
The new EDL?
This was the wider context in which the Football Lads Alliance (FLA), and then the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA), first emerged on British streets in June 2017. Are they simply the ‘new EDL’, as some commentators suggest? Saying so is not wrong, though reductive. For one, football casuals are a driving force throughout all of these street-based groups. For another, the organising and street activism is similar, if on a much larger scale – the EDL has only ever turned out a fraction of the literally tens of thousands attending the initial FLA rallies in 2017. Some of the FLA’s initial support doubtless came about in reaction to the appalling Islamist terrorist attacks witnessed earlier that year in London and Manchester. Some support is also due to the credibility lent by affiliation to more mainstream groups, such as the campaign group Veterans against Terrorism; and more recently for the DFLA, the far right political parties For Britain and UKIP. Yet these are differences in scale rather than type; for instance, the EDL once had the support of the miniscule Liberty GB party led by noted Islamophobe Paul Weston.
To date, the key difference between the (now-dormant) FLA and DFLA on one hand, and the EDL and its progeny on the other, is that the former groups have made a far greater attempt to veil Islamophobic sentiments through slogans like ‘Together We Are Stronger’ (usually shorthanded TWAS); or again, ‘against all forms of terrorism and extremism’. Where this was merely a fig-leaf for anti-Muslim prejudice by the defence leagues, genuine campaigns against homelessness, IRA terrorism and Catholic child abuse scandals, for instance, suggest a broader and less prejudicial agenda for both the DFLA and FLA.
The same railing against ‘the left’, the familiar indulging in conspiracies about Islam and Muslims, as well as connections with established right-wing extremists means that the apple has not fallen far from the tree.
That said, there are also important differences between these two coexisting groups. This first extended analysis of the FLA and DFLA show that the mask slips often enough for both to be considered anti-Muslim pressure groups, no matter how well ‘curated’ the Facebook and Twitter feeds may be in comparison with less media-savvy defence leagues. The same railing against ‘the left’, the familiar indulging in conspiracies about Islam and Muslims, as well as connections with established right-wing extremists means that the apple has not fallen far from the tree.
At less than two years since the emergence of the FLA, then, it may be a bit hasty to describe this simply as a ‘far right movement’. But only a bit. Recent violence and chaotic scenes at DFLA demonstrations; the latter’s connections with far-right figures like Tommy Robinson and groups such as Generation Identity, For Britain and, most troublingly, UKIP; and persisting rhetoric about a race or religious-based ‘civil war’ in Britain – all bode ill. With marches planned for nearly every month, the DFLA promise to stay in the news, and on our streets, during 2019.
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