Islamophobia in the UK: The English Defense League

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As an Englishman abroad in the United States, something that has truly struck me is the different channels and the vast parity in scale that Islamophobic rhetoric pervades American society in comparison to England.

Obviously there are Islamophobes in my country. The United Kingdom has a Muslim population that numbers almost three million (around 5 percent of the total population, compared to 0.8 percent in the US) and has a rich history of intolerance; from the heyday of the National Front in the 1970s to the more recent exploits of the British National Party, who managed to gain seats in the European Parliament in 2009 before their fall from grace in the 2010 General Election.

Today, it is the hate group the English Defense League’s (EDL) name that is gracing the headlines. Yet, what is comforting about the EDL is the vast majority of England’s population ignores their nonsense as exactly that: nonsense. In fact, counter-protests by groups such as Unite Against Fascism (UAF) often substantially outnumber and outlast any protest by the EDL.

What troubles me about the United States is that Islamophobia reaches out to many more people with much greater success. The Tea Party movement captivates the minds of many using fear, lies and propaganda through prominent politicians, including members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. There is even a whole news channel that is dedicated to transmitting these ideas that stir up anti-Islamic sentiment. Islamophobia has much more power and influence in the U.S. as it finds its way to society through these “legitimate” means in comparison to the illegitimate protests of the EDL. Reports in recent months suggest the Tea Party is forging links with the EDL. Could this have implications for Islamophobia on both sides of the Atlantic?

The Tea Party’s Islamophobic tendencies are clear to see. From their unfounded resistance to Park51, to the email exposed by the Huffington Post that was issued by TeaParty.org, in which they called for a blanket expulsion of Muslims from the shores of America.

Figures in the Tea Party will slip up in public statements with banal and immature statements regarding Islam that fall in line with their ultra-conservative beliefs. One classic example of this was Tea Party Express organizer, Mark Williams, who referred to Allah as a “monkey God”.

Alongside the Tea Party movement, overpaid right-wing commentators for conservative TV networks and talk radio shows attract millions of viewers and listeners each week. Personalities such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have an insurmountable amount of power to influence the views of swathes of America’s population with misinformed statements that help to spread not just Islamophobic views, but racist and homophobic views too. One must only point to Beck’s ludicrous statement that 10 percent of Muslims are terrorists. Or Limbaugh’s views that the success of Park51 is a win for “terrorists”, comparing it to the Klu Klux Klan erecting a memorial at Gettysburg. Those in the audience who do not seek out or understand an alternative opinion will take these views as fact, encouraging them to adopt an Islamophobic outlook. What these media personalities spout is not the full story or, for the most part, not a story at all.

The EDL on the other hand utilize far different tactics in their spread of Islamophobia. They are the newest group making waves across the Atlantic, having formed in June 2009 with the explicit goal to prevent the spread of Islam. Their beliefs stem from passionate national pride combined with the idle racism of working-class pub culture in England.

Although, interestingly, the Muslim population of the United Kingdom, which the EDL target under the guise of patriotism, is said to be more patriotic than the rest of the population, according to a 2009 study.

This study exists in stark opposition to the EDL’s view that Muslims aim only to wreak havoc and “Islamize” the nation. The methods of the EDL are inspired by the violent activity of soccer hooliganism, a subculture that many members claim allegiance to. They are not a political party but merely a street protest movement with membership in the thousands whose ultimate aim, besides the removal of Islam from Britain, is to arouse violence and provoke reaction. Yet, the hateful opinions of the EDL are ultimately no different from the multi-millionaires that grace the media and inspire the political movements of America. Only the millionaires are better trained at PR and infinitely more powerful. One must only point to the incident in which Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams wrote a “satirical” letter from the “Colored People” of America to President Lincoln that praised slavery. This did get Mark Williams fired, but the reference to Park51 as a place for “terrorists to worship their monkey God”, was apparently not offensive enough to warrant an appraisal of Williams’ position in the movement.

Not that this renders the EDL insignificant. Their inflammatory behavior not only inspires pages upon pages of media coverage, but also serves to destroy community cohesion and strike fear into those targeted in the heavily Muslim populated towns and cities that the group seeks out, for example Bradford, Luton and Blackburn. Those protesting emblazon themselves with the St. George’s Cross, whether simply flying the flag or wearing intimidating masks featuring the famous red cross. These masks are designed to simultaneously express their national “pride” alongside hiding the identity of the wearer, in a manner acknowledging the illegality of their behavior, whilst others mockingly wear burqas. They sing inane words to the tune of traditional soccer chants, including the grammatically nonsensical “I’m England ‘til I die”, “we love the floods” in reference to the recent floods in Pakistan and “who the **** is Allah?” There is absolutely nothing peaceful about the manner in which EDL supporters protest and, as such, they consistently crescendo with an outbreak of violence.

In recent weeks EDL activity has increased due to the anniversary of 7/7, a terrorist attack in London in 2005. In the incident, four Islamic terrorists, born in the United Kingdom, coordinated a suicide bomb attack on public transport in the capital, killing 52 people and injuring over 700 more. The EDL use this as a flash point to raise awareness for their cause, with marches occurring in Halifax, Middlesbrough, Plymouth and Cambridge all in the same weekend.

One EDL supporter, Christopher Payne, was arrested for placing a pig’s head scrawled with an anti-Muslim message on a 4ft pole outside of a proposed new mosque site at the end of June. A group of forty people even attempted to intimidate a Muslim European parliament member, Sajjad Karim, outside his home in Lancashire whilst his wife and children remained inside.

When the EDL say they are opposed only to “Islamic extremism”, they routinely attack any semblance of Islam. Members of their 92,000 strong Facebook group spout hateful comments on a regular basis, calling for a “Muslim holocaust” and for anything with the word “Islam” in it to be burned.

What is particularly foreboding about the EDL is that they do not look like they are going to disappear any time soon. In their two year history their support has grown exponentially and the organized marches are increasing in regularity. More concerning is the transatlantic link that is forming between the EDL and the Tea Party here in the U.S.

A Tea Party activist and Rabbi, Nachum Shifren, who is a regular speaker at Tea Party conventions, was invited to speak in London during October last year. In his speech about Sharia law in London he referred to Muslims as “dogs” and said that the EDL would start “the liberation of England from evil”.

Pamela Gellar, a figure growing in prominence within the Tea Party after her involvement with Park51 and Stop the Islamization of America (a registered hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), publicly supported the EDL and defended their actions. “I share the EDL’s goals,” Gellar said in her blog, “We need to encourage rational, reasonable groups that oppose the Islamization of the west.”

Gellar did withdraw her support of the EDL on 30th June in response to rising anti-Semitism from neo-fascist elements of the movement. It doesn’t bear thinking what would, in her eyes, be ‘unreasonable’ if she did once deem their actions ‘reasonable’. “They [EDL] now have been clearly infiltrated by the worst kind of influences,” she said, “they are now unrecognizable to me.” Her attitude reeks of double-standards when it comes to religious persecution. She clearly has no issue with the anti-Islamic hatred that boils within the EDL, but when their rhetoric has murmurs of anti-Semitism she is quick to dismiss the group.

Whilst the mainstream Tea Party activists may distance themselves from the violence of extreme groups, it is clear that this opinion is not shared by all supporters. The potential financial support from the wealthy Tea Party members could see the EDL’s operations spread beyond a street movement to become a political party up for election. Likewise, could the EDL’s influence be supplanted to the U.S. with greater utilization of guerilla street tactics?

The former seems much more likely than the latter as financial support is far more subtle than the adoption of protest methods that could destroy the reputation of the Tea Party. What’s more, the Tea Party is far more established and powerful than the EDL, likely forming a role akin to a parent in any such relationship between the two. Although Gellar’s rejection of the EDL shows indifference to the Islamic cause, hopefully it is a sign that even the most extreme segments of the Tea Party will continue to distance themselves from this violent group, much like its mainstream constituents do. These Tea Partiers may share the opinions of many members of the hateful and despicable EDL, but they should know when to draw the line on what they publically endorse.

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