Unless yo u’ve been living off grid in the Highlands for the past 18 months, the emergence and meteoric rise of the English Defence League won’t be news. Going from a handful of BNP members in Luton to a network capable of mobilising thousands in under a year, the EDL have shaken up Britain’s far right and pointed them in a new (old) direction. Whilst the BNP lurch from internal split to desperate purge, failing to make progress with their electoral strategy and haemorhaging funds, the EDL are taking the extreme right back onto the streets. In a little under two weeks’ time, they are planning ‘the big one’ – a provocative demonstration on the streets of Bradford, designed to goad local Muslim youths into confrontation and fill the media with talk of race riots.
As I said before, none of this is news, so why write another article about the EDL? Because, despite an abundance of analyses, few people seem to be getting to grips with this worrying development, and even fewer have been able to successfully challenge this phenomenon.
Let’s start with the EDL’s own view of what they stand for, before moving on to some more critical views. The EDL claim to be fighting against ‘Islamic extremism’. They claim to share the paranoid fantasy, wilfully encouraged by some of the tabloids, that Britain is on the verge of takeover by shadowy Islamist forces who will impose Shariah law and halal food on the nation. This imminent threat, like the equally fictitious imminent threat of WMD in Iraq, is useful in mobilising people to a reactionary cause. The terms ‘Islamic extremism’ and ‘moderate Muslims’ are loaded. We never hear a similar distinction being made about adherents to other religions; no one calls for moderate Buddhists to deal with the extremists in their midst. The language has been used to pathologise those who follow Islam. Even those who don’t pose a threat, the ‘moderates’, are suspect. The EDL swallow this categorisation uncritically. Perhaps it is because there are a number of fundamentalist Christians and Zionists within the EDL that this blindspot is cultivated.
But even according to the rules of the ‘evil Islam’ game, the EDL seem to slip up time and time again. Rather than focussing on the most authoritarian and uncompromising preachers and doctrines the EDL’s actions seem to target all Muslims equally. They target the building of all new mosques, not just those that give a platform to intolerant speakers. They use pigs heads and Israeli flags to provoke the entire Muslim community. They do not make any attempt to engage ‘moderate Muslims’ because they don’t believe that moderate Muslims exist. The same organisation that demonises the burqa, supposedly out of a concern for women’s rights, is dominated by men and has banned its few female members from coming to Bradford. Just like the patriarchal Muslim men they claim to oppose, the EDL think that women need men to look after them. Their opposition to ‘extremist Islam’ is a flimsy cover for racial violence.
The EDL claim to be a politically neutral, single-issue campaign against ‘extremist Islam’ but recently they have started turning up to left-wing and anarchist political meetings in attempts to intimidate and harrass people they see as their ideological enemies. A Palestine solidarity demo in Birmingham and an Indymedia meeting in Sheffield have recently been threatened by members of the EDL and they regularly share details of left-wing meetings on their forums. This is classic fascist activity reminiscent of the National Front in the ’70s and ’80s. They also seem to have strong affinity with loyalists in Northern Ireland, often incorporating the red hand of Ulster and the slogan ‘No Surrender’ into their symbolism. These are further proofs that the EDL are drawing on the legacy of far-right street movements and are not the benign pressure group they try to present themselves as.
So, what do critics of the EDL make of all this? the first category of anti-EDL analysis, and the most shallow, claims that the EDL are just the BNP in disguise; fascists disillusioned with electioneering going back to the streets for a bit of action. Whilst there certainly are many outright fascists and neo-Nazis within the EDL, the phenomenon is much more diverse than that. I call it a phenomenon rather than an organisation because, in contrast to the BNP or the National Front, the EDL are relatively decentralised and work as a network with similar views on a cluster of themes including Islam and Englishness.
Whilst there is a hierarchy, with spokesmen (and yes, they are all men), organisers and stewards there is not the same requirement of ideological homogeneity that is found in the parties of the far right. It is this looseness of structure that makes the EDL a broad church, taking in non-ideological racists, football hooligans fed up of police crackdowns and, importantly, working class men disillusioned with mainstream politics, as well as the usual fascists. To call them all Nazis reveals the poverty of analysis offered by groups like Unite Against Fascism, and is counterproductive, giving credibility to the EDL’s claims to be a radical, anti-establishment voice, when in fact they are conservative and reactionary.
Then there are those who see the EDL as a phenomenon on the battlefield of the class war. They look for big money backers, pointing to people like Alan Lake, a millionaire businessman who is supposed to fund the EDL, as evidence that the EDL has been engineered by the ruling classes to divide and rule the working class. Advocates of this analysis say that disillusioned workers within the EDL are being duped into supporting the ruling classes’ ‘war on terror’ and pose socialist redistribution of wealth and/or class warfare as a genuine alternative to mainstream politics. There is certainly increasing evidence that the EDL are considerably more ideological than they claim to be, with their website encouraging members to vote UKIP during the election and branding striking workers as ‘commies’. But this class analysis fails if it doesn’t incorporate the potent far right standards of race and Britishness.
Whatever its spokesmen may claim, the EDL is all about racism. When their demos degenerate from drunken chest-beating into outright violence, it is always Asian targets, be they shops, taxis, temples or people, who are on the receiving end. The EDL claim to be against Islamism but the reality is that their base of support comes from people who hate ‘Pakis’. They often draw the most support and recruit the most members in areas where tensions between white and Asian communities are high, like Stoke-on-Trent, Dudley and Bolton. It is wrong to assume that their members are predominantly old school racists, who hate everyone who isn’t white enough. Rather, these racists seem to be more motivated by cultural difference and the manufactured idea of a clash of civilisations. Whilst Britain’s Carribean migrants are often considered by such people to be acceptably Christian and hedonistic, the much more culturally challenging values of immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East are seen as a threat to be neutered or annihilated. Using racialised ideas about cultural difference the street fighters go into battle against anything Asian or Muslim.
The concerns that members of the EDL have, that they can’t support their families because there aren’t any jobs for them, that resources and services are being unequally distributed, are, of course, entirely valid. The capitalist economy, maintained in order to benefit the capitalist ruling classes at the expense of everyone else, ensures that there is a constant supply of misery for the excluded. The arch-capitalists put a lot of time and effort into making sure that those who are being shafted don’t realise the cause of their problems. That means finding false enemies to displace dispossessed people’s anger onto, like Muslims, ‘chavs’, asylum seekers and ‘benefit cheats’. The corporate media, owned and controlled by capitalists, are happy to propagate the scapegoating of these groups. The anger of poor people about their condition gets diverted away from legitimate targets and towards even more vulnerable groups. Of course, some groups make particularly good scapegoats for the establishment. Given the context of the ‘war on terror’, an ideological smokescreen for the plunder of the Middle East, it is very convenient for the western powers to demonise Muslim ‘extremists’. Not only does it take the heat off them at home, it helps build support for their wars abroad.
Ultimately, although they see themselves as striking a blow against the establishment, the footsoldiers of the EDL are helping to prop the establishment up. The Britain that they support is one that will only accept them as insignificant subordinates, as expendable troops to be brutally beaten by the police and imprisoned by the courts if they stray too far from the script. However many ‘Islamic extremists’ they chase out of town, they will still be without jobs and functional communities because they have failed to take on the system that is running the show. They have been bought out by the crumbs from the capitalists’ table – a tiny share in the spoils of western plunder and a rung on the ladder just a little higher than destitution.
The Bradford demo could be a critical moment for the EDL. If they succeed in creating chaos and widespread violence, the powers that be may decide that they have stepped too far out of control and suppress the movement with all the powers at the state’s disposal. If the ‘big one’ fails to materialise after all the hype, the EDL may run out of steam with its members leaving in droves to find better places to get their kicks. Whilst it is important for those who are prepared to resist the division of our communities to show solidarity with the Asian comunity in Bradford, it is also extremely important to expose the role that the EDL plays in dividing and conquering dissent. It is vital that we build effective movements of resistance to the capitalist system and draw support away from reactionary street movements and the mainstream politics that has swindled so many.