Earlier today I was interviewed by Adrian Goldberg on BBC Radio WM about the English Defence League’s (EDL) protest in Birmingham tomorrow.
Following members of the general public who had phoned in from across the West Midlands to voice their support for the EDL – at times, in very scary and highly inflammatory ways – I was asked the question, “Is the EDL Islamophobic?”.
In a minute and a half it’s pretty difficult to offer a full argument. However in 2011, I published an article in the academic journal Patterns of Prejudice that tackled the question head on. To read the article, you can do so by clicking here (be warned though, you will need an institutional subscription if you want to do so for free).
Whilst I would love to reproduce the article here, copyright rules do not allow me to. However, I have reproduced below a version of the conclusion which sums up some of my argument…enjoy:
When the EDL’s Tommy Robinson states that ‘20 years down the line we’ll be overrun by Islam’, he is not referring to that form of Islam that is the preserve of the jihadis or extremists: he is talking about Islam per se. And Islam per se is the religion of all the many different types of Muslims, not just the Muslims the EDL argue are ‘Islamifying’ Britain. While the EDL claims that it opposes only certain types of Islam and certain types of Muslims, the meaning underpinning that claim is in reality far less differentiated. Even if the lack of differentiation weren’t intentional, it is highly unlikely that those on the receiving end of such messages would necessarily be able to distinguish between those Muslims the EDL is targeting and those it is not. Instead, it is much more likely that what is received is that Islam – Islam per se – can never be a part of ‘our’ way of life. Inherently different to us and all that we believe to be normal, Islam in any of its manifestations or interpretations is opposite and Other. Given that Islam, according to the EDL, cannot – and will not – change, the only way forward is for ‘us’ to change and transform. Thus, the argument that ‘politically correct’ pandering is the reason why the politicians, liberals and others that the EDL equally oppose tell ‘us’ to accommodate ‘them’ seems to be justified. The EDL is in this way creating and perpetuating a ‘form of order’ that demarcates who we are and who we are not. Employing a variety of different systems of meaning and thought, manifested through numerous signifiers and symbols – a country besieged by Muslims, the erosion of Christmas, jihadist preachers, the banning of nativity plays, halal-meat-only school dinners, the marginalization of Englishness, the removal of the St George’s Cross and so on – the EDL influences, impacts on and informs the social consensus about the Other. The EDL is creating and perpetuating meanings about Muslims and Islam, whether real or imaginary, accurate or inaccurate, representative or misrepresentative, that are clearly ideologically Islamophobic.
But this is not happening in a vacuum or in a context that has been created by the EDL alone. The EDL’s systems of meaning and thought are resonating with, and feeding into, the already growing animosity towards Islam evident in contemporary Britain. Aside from Nick Griffin’s rhetorical ‘growing wave of hostility’, a handful of different sources can be referenced to support this. At the most populist level, an online poll organized by the Daily Star newspaper in October 2010 found that 98 per cent of respondents agreed with the idea that Britain was becoming a Muslim state. More empirical and credible were the findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey 2010 that highlighted how just over half of the population believed that Britain was deeply divided along religious lines, with around 45 per cent believing that religious diversity was having a negative impact on society. In addition, when asked how they would feel if a mosque were built on the street where they lived, 55 per cent admitted that they would be bothered; in contrast, only 15 per cent felt the same about a church being built. Finally, the findings from recent research into Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crime demonstrate how these attitudes are manifested at the grassroots level. In the Black Country, an area north of Birmingham where far-right organizations – including both the BNP and EDL – have been active for a number of years, one community leader working with young people to counter the divisive messages of the far right spoke candidly about an anti-Muslim, anti-Islam ‘sentiment or vibe’ becoming increasingly widespread among young people, not just among those with a white British heritage, but also among those of black Caribbean and Asian descent. She explained that expressing such a ‘sentiment or vibe’ was unproblematic. In fact, it was completely acceptable. Sounding something akin to a warning, she went on:
‘You can kind of tap into that, then drip-feed other things later when you’ve kind of got it all worked out.’
This is the landscape within which the EDL has been able to grow and function, a landscape that neither the EDL – nor the BNP before it – constructed themselves.
This article set out to consider the extent to which the EDL might be described as Islamophobic. As a movement that grew out of the football hooligan fraternity, its mission from the outset has been to oppose the more extreme forms of Islam in Britain. And it has done this with some success. Unlike others that have attempted something similar previously, the EDL is not a direct product of the traditional far-right milieu. Because of this, the movement presents very real challenges that many will be unaccustomed to and ill-equipped to respond to effectively. Dismissing the EDL as part of the far-right milieu overlooks its highly innovative and dynamic approach. Most prominent has been the way in which it has been able credibly to reflect and accommodate contemporary multicultural Britain in terms of its diversity. In doing so, and despite what critics suggest to the contrary, it does not espouse an ideology that can be seen as traditionally racist. However, it does espouse an ideology that can be seen as a form of ‘new racism’ or cultural racism. Accordingly, it creates a ‘form of order’ about who we are and who we are not, using markers of difference that have become established and recognized since the events of 9/11 and 7/7 vis-a`-vis Muslims and Islam, first trail-blazed by groups such as the BNP. Creating or even just reiterating a ‘form of order’ that confirms Muslims and Islam as against ‘our’ way of life ensures that the EDL are able to shape and disseminate meanings that influence, impact on and inform the social consensus about the Other. As all Muslims and Islam, without differentiation, are that irrefutable Other, so the EDL is clearly Islamophobic.
As regards being part of the far right, the EDL undoubtedly resembles other organizations within that milieu. Because of this – and in spite of protestations to the contrary by the ED – it is extremely difficult not to place the EDL on that end of the political spectrum. Doing so, however, might underestimate both the strength of feeling that the EDL has located. More fluid and reflexive than other far-right organizations, it maintains an ideological premise that is typically discriminatory but, at the same time, appeals to the typically discriminated. The EDL thereby blurs and indeed negotiates many of the boundaries that have historically constrained those on the traditional far right. Most successfully, they have reached out and incorporated some Jews, gays and others normally excluded by the far right. It is worth stressing that the numbers attracted to the EDL from within these groups are exceedingly small. However, the speed with which the movement has been able to grow is far from insignificant. The extent of the EDL’s wider support cannot be easily determined. As its marches and protests have shown, they are able – with some ease – to mobilize around 3,000 people in different parts of the country and at very short notice. But what is more impressive – and of course more worrying – is the large number of passive supporters that seem to be increasingly receptive to the EDL’s messages. Some of them may have merely clicked a ‘like’ button for no other reason than a Facebook friend had done the same. However, that click means that the EDL gains another person to whom it is able to disseminate its message in an unobtrusive and immediate way, indiscriminately and passively drip-feeding the ‘sentiment or vibe’ – ideological Islamophobia – about Muslims and Islam that is becoming increasingly seen as normal and unproblematic. More so than the active supporters of the EDL who are prepared to go on to the streets and march in support, it is through these passive supporters that the ‘growing wave of public hostility to Islam’ is likely to flow.