This Sunday two armies are threatening to clash on the streets of the East End of London. One involves a broad coalition of ethnic, Islamic and far-left groups, plus trade unions, churches and teachers. The other is a loose collection of far-right thugs, football hooligan 'firms', UKIP aficionados, and the odd Sikh or two, united by a fear (or hatred) of Islam.
When the English Defence League (EDL) announced it was to protest outside a local student Islamic conference in a cinema on the East End's Commercial Road, it set in motion a chain of events that has threatened some of the biggest street clashes since Oswald Moseley tried to take his Blackshirts down Cable Street in 1936.
The usual carpet-baggers have appeared: Unite Against Fascism (UAF), chaired by Ken Livingstone, was first on the scene, offering its foot soldiers to the local community. A massive counter-demonstration against the EDL is now planned for Sunday. The community was bound to react – after all, local Bangladeshis saw off the National Front, the British National Party and neo-Nazi gang Combat 18 over the last two decades – but the actions of the Far Left in jumping on a 'cause' are reminiscent of so much in east London politics. It does little to calm tensions and, in my opinion, does little to serve the community in the longer term. The UAF, inheritor of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) mantle, is great at demonstrating, sometimes less well-prepared for understanding the real tensions and issues on the ground.
East London remains a magnet for radicals of all shades. The famous Siege of Sidney Street in 1911, at which Winston Churchill was present, saw a Russian anarchist gang rob a jewelry story and then die shooting it out with the Army. Before that were the street battles outside the synagogue (now Jamme Masjid mosque) on Brick Lane, when Jewish anarchists pelted Ultra-Orthodox worshippers with bacon sandwiches on Yom Kippur in 1904, denying the existence of God. The infamous Jewish gangster Jack Spot "the king of Aldgate" later took an iron chair to Oswald Moseley's fascists when they provocatively marched, with police protection, through Cable Street in 1936.
There are modern parallels, too. Just a few weeks ago, British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin was ready to declare himself 'king' of the east London borough of Barking & Dagenham.
In 2006, the BNP became the official opposition in the area, taking 12 council seats. I wrote about the neo-Nazi movement's growing power in east London in an article for The Observer Magazine (where I also discussed the mirrored growth of George Galloway's Respect party in nearby Tower Hamlets). Disaffection with Labour ran high in both Barking & Dagenham and the East End.
The local Barking economy was hard-hit, reliant on the now-much-reduced Ford motor plant at Dagenham. Pressure on council housing stock, plus some of the cheapest private housing in London – leading to an influx of migrants – caused huge resentment among the largely white-working class population living on their giant interwar estates.
Meanwhile in Tower Hamlets, lying in the shadow of the City, massive levels of commercial property development and the marketing of Brick Lane as the so-called heart of 'Banglatown' did little to appease a second-generation of alienated Bangladeshi-origin youngsters. They lived among some of the worst deprivation in the country. Overcrowding, drugs and gangs ran rife in the East End. Politically-aware Muslims were also becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Anti-Iraq war sentiment was a huge factor in unseating previous Bethnal Green MP Oona King from her 10,000 seat majority and propelling a pre-Big Brother George Galloway into the limelight. A year later, in 2006, Respect took 12 seats on Tower Hamlets council and it too, like the BNP, became the official opposition: a doomed marriage between the hard Left, particularly the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and politically-active Muslim activists, some of whom were reformed gang members and now dreamed of bringing Islam closer to the heart of government.
As I wrote in 2006, the two radical groups – BNP and Respect – shared an interest: "One party had long-opposed 'Zionist' occupation of Palestine, calling Israel 'a terrorist state'; the other wrote pamphlets on Jewish control and influence, saying it was 'cowardly' to pretend it did not exist."
The irony was that the vote for both collapsed at the May 2010 general and local elections. A series of disasters saw the BNP losing all its seats in Barking & Dagenham: Griffin's heir-apparent, Mark Collett, was arrested after apparently threatening to kill his boss. Barking & Dagenham BNP deputy leader Bob Bailey was filmed quite literally putting the boot into a young Asian man's head on the campaign trail, before the BNP's webmaster resigned in protest at his boss's actions in upsetting Marmite's owners, Unilever during a party broadcast and thus exposing the party to legal action. Griffin came a distant third in Barking's parliamentary contest. A massive counter-effort by the Hope Not Hate campaign and trade unions saw the far-right party struggle to maintain its seats elsewhere in the country. (Griffin has promised to resign by 2013.)
Things were not much better for George Galloway, who came third in the Poplar parliamentary contest, where he was challenging Labour stalwart and former Farming Minister, Jim Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick had fallen out with one of Tower Hamlet's powerful Islamic factions and Galloway clearly thought he could capitalise on that resentment. He failed. To cap it off, Galloway lost his-rumoured £100,000 weekend slot on Talksport radio. Galloway's heir-apparent in Bethnal Green and Bow, Abjol Miah, closely-linked to the Islamic faction so hostile to Fitzpatrick (and who had taken Galloway to meet many power brokers in Bangladesh), also crashed to third place, losing over 20% of Respect's vote. Already fatally split (the SWP faction had long been booted out and several councillors had defected to Labour), the Respect dream seemed to have ended. The great irony is that Unite Against Fascism's joint secretary, Weyman Bennett, is a long-standing power broker from the SWP – and is about to re-appear in east London this weekend.
This Sunday it is the rabidly-Islamophobic EDL that is threatening to upset what American author Jack London once described as "the Awful East". Barely has one set of battles ended before another has arrived.
Drawn from the ranks of the UK's ignoble football hooligan tribes (or "firms" as they prefer to call themselves), thousands of Islam-hating thugs from the EDL have been threatening to descend on the East End to picket a student Islamic conference at former cinema. Previous EDL events have ended in riots. Despite the event itself now being called off by the venue, message boards have been running riot with dire warnings and erroneous claims that the EDL is planning to come and attack the massive East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre in Whitechapel. A huge counter-rally is now planned by local Bangladeshis, Muslim groups, and anti-fascists (notably the UAF). Most of the prominent power brokers in the Bangladeshi community are less worried about the sight of beer bellies and tattoos than their own young men, many of whom have served their apprenticeships in gangs, doing serious harm to the interlopers.
The irony is that, according to an undercover investigation by The Guardian, many of the EDL supporters trumpeted a recent Channel 4 'Dispatches' programme, Britain's Islamic Republic, as "proof" that Islamic extremists are thriving in the East End. 'Dispatches' suggested that an Islamic pressure group, the Islamic Forum of Europe, or IFE, wielded too much power and influence in the area from its East London Mosque 'base' and was trying to infiltrate the Labour hierarchy.
What was not apparent in the 'Dispatches' programme and follow-up reports by reporter Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph was that there are two Bangladeshi factions battling it out for power and influence right now in the East End. Each have their pocket politicians; each has sought control over budgets and direction of politics. One is more secular in origin, with links to the Awami League in Bangladesh and Labour here. Despite battles with corruption (the local Labour party is in special measures) it is now in the ascendancy. The other – the IFE faction – is more Islamo-political in origin, with strong influences from the philosophies of Maulana Maududi and historical links to the Jammat-i-Islami movement in Bangladesh (broadly-speaking, its followers believe that Islam is a 'way of life', which stretches into politics and all other corners of life). It had thrown its weight behind George Galloway as well as several Labour politicians,which according to 'Dispatches' was the recent Labour council leader, Lutfur Rahman (who has now been succeeded by Helal Abbas, a Bangladeshi from the secular faction who is widely-admired for his incorruptibility).
'Dispatches' most readily-quoted criticism from the secular-linked Muslim/Bangladeshi faction, leveling accusations against the other group, in what seemed like a clear-cut case of an Islamic fundamentalist organisation trying to infiltrate local political parties. In reality, the picture is much more muddied and 'village politics' – ensuring your friends and contacts stuff the ballot box with votes for your faction – still plays a big part. The names of the political parties do not matter so much as which individual supports 'your' interests (which is why votes can change hands so readily).
All this has been grist-to-the-mill for the EDL, right-wing cranks and conspiracy theorists. The subtleties of East End power politics are lost on most Islamophobic thugs or, indeed, on the rest of the population which according to a recent poll still readily associates Islam with extremism. Probably lost on many Leftists, too. There are undoubtedly difficulties and insularities within elements of Britain's, and the East End's, Islamic power brokers. They must shake off some of the literalism of their fundamentalist beliefs. But the reality of east London is that its factions are vying for power, much has always happened. Already the Bangladeshi-origin population is dissipating, moving out to the suburbs as it grows more prosperous. Internet rants, boots and broken bottles, blanket condemnation without context, merely sees the picture as black and white – when in reality it is many shades of grey. The ideologues of the Far Right, and Far Left, would do well to stay away from the East End.
Nick Ryan is author of Homeland: Into a World of Hate (Mainstream/Random House) www.nickryan.net