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Educating the English Defence League

The EDL’s demonstration in Luton undermines efforts by British Muslims to tackle terrorism and extremism.

When members and supporters of the English Defence League demonstrate in Luton on Saturday they will display their genuine but misplaced fears about Islam as a source of violence, extremism and disloyalty to the UK. Sadly, and merely because they wear distinctive "Islamic" clothing, some of Luton's most loyal and effective opponents of terrorism, extremism and subversion will be targets of EDL hatred and violent intimidation. Not only is this grossly unjust, but it also increases the risk of further violence and intimidation of Muslims in Luton – a town the EDL calls the hub of militant Islam in the UK. Shortly after an earlier EDL demonstration in the town, the Luton Islamic Centre was firebombed and several Muslims were attacked in the street. Of particular concern was the fact that the attackers used an accelerant that increased the petrol bomb's capacity to cause harm and damage.

Even in the face of such provocation, the managers at the Luton Islamic Centre have been prepared to engage with their violent opponents and to provide education about Islam and Muslims to help disabuse young local EDL supporters of their misplaced fears. Interestingly, these brave Luton Muslims compare the leadership of the EDL with al-Muhajiroun, a fringe extremist Muslim group that uses many names including Islam 4 The UK to stir up hatred and provide the EDL with an erroneous image of Islam. Each extremist group, they say from local knowledge, feeds off the other. To demonstrate their point, the mosque managers led a successful campaign to challenge al-Muhajiroun on the streets of Luton. This robust action served to weaken al-Muhajiorun's street credibility among young local Muslims and also to educate the wider local community about the nature of Islam.

This is an important lesson in street education I have seen repeated in Brixton and Finsbury Park. Like the Luton Islamic Centre, Brixton Mosque for many years has been at the forefront of self-generated local action challenging and tackling fringe Muslim groups like al-Muhajiroun as well as the more serious but equally fringe support for al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism. To illustrate, the Brixton Muslims sent Anjem Choudhury, leader of al-Muhajiroun, and his supporters packing when they sought to promote hatred and disharmony in the local community in 2009. Most crucially, a crowd of young Muslims watched as the hitherto impressive and assured Choudhury was out-argued by his Brixton hosts before being despatched back to Ilford with his humiliated supporters in tow.

No doubt a hard core of EDL members would resist any serious attempts to educate them about Islam, but experience suggests that many young EDL supporters might be reassured about Islam and their Muslim neighbours if their concerns were taken seriously, and if they saw some of their role models begin to demonstrate support for Muslims and Islam.

If young supporters of the EDL were educated in much the same way as many racists have been educated in the past two decades, then we might begin to see a significant reduction in EDL membership and to the threat the organisation poses to public safety and social cohesion. That at least is the view of a group of Luton Town football supporters, who told me that the success of campaigns such as Let's Kick Racism Out of Football might be repeated to the detriment of EDL membership if they embraced the challenge of Islamophobia with the same enthusiasm.

For the main part, that means informal education in the classroom, in workplaces, at sporting events and at social gatherings. Role models are widely understood to have played critical roles in reducing racism in football, and that may well be significant, given the extent to which EDL draws support from football fans.

The recent BBC Newsnight report on the English Defence League perfectly illustrated this affinity with football culture and highlighted the urgent need to educate EDL supporters about the religion of Islam. In Luton, Nottingham and Birmingham, both new and established EDL members are shown expressing fears about Islam as a source of terrorism, extremism, subversion, barbarity and criminal sexual exploitation of women. If Islam was genuinely the kind of threat to England that these EDL members perceive it to be, then their anger and determination to oppose it might be justified. The fact that Islam is not the threat that the EDL and many citizens genuinely believe it to be should therefore be the basis of urgent remedial action at both the national and local level.

Given the alarming growth of EDL membership and support, there is an onus on all of us with knowledge of Islam to help educate EDL members and supporters about Islam and Muslims. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest that the EDL needs re-educating about Islam. The Newsnight report itself and Jeremy Paxman's subsequent interview with the EDL leader Stephen Lennon (aka "Tommy Robinson") illustrate how EDL organisers have spent much of the past two years learning about Islam. Unfortunately, they have drawn their new knowledge from a vast array of inaccurate, Islamophobic literature that has become widespread during the last decade.

While Paxman did his best to point out the deficiencies in EDL understanding of Islam, it became sufficiently clear that Lennon's personal experience in his home town of Luton required knowledge about Islam and Muslims that Paxman does not possess. Instead, these lessons are best provided by Muslims in Luton, Brixton, Finsbury Park and the many other towns and communities where such problems arise.

Dr Robert Lambert is co-director of the European Muslim Research Centre (EMRC) at the University of Exeter. He was previously head of the Muslim Contact Unit (MCU) in the Metropolitan Police.