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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.