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.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.