The New Statesman and Frontline Club debate

Final panel for the debate announced, plus submit your own questions to Julian Assange and co.

"This house believes whistleblowers make the world a safer place"
Saturday 9 April 2011, 5pm, Kensington Town Hall

Coming to the New Statesman and Frontline Club debate on Saturday? Audience members are being invited to submit their questions to the panel in advance of Saturday's debate. A selection of questions will be chosen by the chair. If you want to put a question to the panel at the debate then submit it here.

We are also delighted to announce that Mehdi Hasan and Clayton Swisher will speak alongside Julian Assange for the proposition, while Sir David Richmond, Bob Ayers and Douglas Murray will oppose the motion. For full bios see below:

Proposition:

Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks

Julian Assange is the 39-year-old editor in chief of WikiLeaks. Queensland-born Assange has been the subject of public calls for his assassination by leading US politicians and faces an ongoing espionage investigation. In 2010 he overwhelmingly won Time magazine's Readers' Choice Person of the Year poll and was named Le Monde's Man of the Year. He has also been awarded the Amnesty International UK Media Award and the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. In February 2011 his organisation, WikiLeaks, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize after publishing three of the biggest leaks of classified information in history, the Afghan War Diaries, the Iraq War Logs and Cablegate.

Clayton Swisher, head of al-Jazeera's Transparency Unit

Clayton Swisher is the head of al-Jazeera's Transparency Unit (the team that produced the Palestine Papers in January 2011). An ex-federal investigator-turned-investigative journalist, he is a former director of programmes at the Middle East Institute and a current term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. As a journalist, he has covered the 2008 US presidential elections, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. He has also authored two books: The Truth About Camp David (New York: Nation Books, 2004) and The Palestine Papers: the End of the Road? (London: Hesperus, 31 March 2011).

Mehdi Hasan, senior political editor, New Statesman

Mehdi Hasan is the senior political editor of New Statesman. He was a former editor in the news and current affairs department at Channel 4, where he worked on the award-winning Dispatches documentary strand. He is a regular guest on Sky News and the BBC, appearing regularly on Question Time and The Daily Politics. He is an occasional presenter on LBC radio and the co-author of a forthcoming biography of Ed Miliband – Ed Miliband and the Remaking of the Labour Party (London: Biteback, summer 2011).

Opposition:

Sir David Richmond, former director, defence and intelligence, British Foreign and Commonwealth Office

David Richmond was a British diplomat for more than 30 years. His career included postings to Baghdad, Brussels and New York, where he worked on the UN Security Council. In 2000 he became the first UK representative to the EU's political and security committee in Brussels and was closely involved in the creation of European security and defence policy. In 2003 he returned to Baghdad (where he had first been posted 20 years earlier) and was later appointed UK special representative for Iraq. In his last posting, he was director general for general defence and intelligence and a member of the Foreign Office Board.

Bob Ayers, former director of the US Department of Defence Information Systems Security Programme

Bob Ayers had a distinguished career in the US government. In 1992, he was appointed director of the defence department's Information Systems Security Programme. He next assumed the post of director, defensive information warfare, leading the programme designed to protect DoD systems from systematic cyber attacks. From 1990-92, he was responsible for the security of more than 40,000 classified intelligence-processing systems at 55 locations across the world. Bob is a noted public figure, appearing on television and radio in the US, in the UK and worldwide, and publishing many articles.

Douglas Murray, author and political commentator

Douglas Murray is a bestselling writer and award-winning political commentator. Since 2007 he has been director of the Centre for Social Cohesion. From April 2011 he will be associate director of the Henry Jackson Society. Murray appears regularly in the British and foreign media. A frequent guest on Question Time and Newsnight, he is also a columnist for Standpoint magazine and writes for many other publications, including the Spectator and Wall Street Journal. In 2008 he co-authored Victims of Intimidation: Freedom of Speech Within Europe's Muslim Communities. His latest book, on the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday, will be published later this year.

India Bourke
Show Hide image

Pegida UK: The new face of the far-right?

"Let them drink tea" Birmingham tells Islamophobes.

“Spooky,” is how Pegida UK – the latest branch of a global, anti-Islam, protest group  chooses to describe its silent march on the outskirts of Birmingham. 

“Islam is Nazism incarnate,” announces its new leader, Paul Weston, to a few hundred soggy, sober, brolly-clad protesters waving “Trump is Right” placards. 


Pegida UK protestors march through the rain. Photos: India Bourke

Such numbers are a far cry from the tens of thousands who attended the movement’s inaugural rallies in Germany in 2014, in response to the perceived “Islamisation” of Europe. And they would be derisory if the cheers Weston receives from his supporters weren’t quite so chilling, nor echoed so far.

For Pegida UK is not alone. From Calais to Canberra, thousands marched in the name of the movement’s toxic platform of anti-immigration and anti-Islam last weekend. I went to see the Birmingham rally to find out why such a protest is taking place in Britain.

***

"Today is the first of many European wide demonstrations that will bring people together like never before,” Tommy Robinson, UK founder and ex-EDL leader, tells the assembled crowd. “It's planting the seed of something huge.”

Robinson hopes to exploit a gap within Britain’s far-right. Traditional groups are fractured: the British National Party was decimated at the last election, standing just eight of a previous 338 candidates. In its place, a swell of smaller, extremist bodies – from the Sigurd Legion to National Action – are pressing an ever more militant agenda. Pegida hopes to scale back the hooliganism in order to garner a wider appeal, but it shares these groups’ confrontation with Islam, and each may spur the other on.

“With Pegida we’re seeing the rise of a seminal new threat,” says Birmingham MP Liam Byrne. “In the rise of Isis and politicians like Donald Trump, you have forces determined to promote a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West. Pegida is trying to surf that wave and make sure it crashes on our shores.

Opponents hope the movement will suffer the same implosion that felled the BNP and EDL, with both leaning  too much on their leaders’ personal brands. Robinson certainly seems as adolescent as ever: laughing as he swipes away a photo of a scantily-clad blonde on his iPhone screen to show me the international Pegida leadership’s “hidden” Facebook group.

Their new apparently "suited and booted" middle-class following is also less than wholehearted. One pin-striped IT executive I speak to seems embarrassed by the whole affair: “I’m just a cowardly family man who can’t see a solution being offered by mainstream politicians. I’d be sacked if they knew I was here,” he says, declining to give his name. 


A Pegida protestor poses in front of the main stage.

As long as such hesitation prevails, Pegida UK will struggle. Still, there’s a sense more needs to be done to ensure its demise.

Matching protest with counter-protest is the traditional leftwing response, and this weekend saw thousands of Pegida opponents take to the streets across Europe. Yet, in some cases, direct confrontation can risk drowning out – even alienating – the very voices it seeks to win over.

“Smash the facists into the sea,” instructed the Twitter account of the North London Antifa group ahead of last weekend’s far-right, anti-immigration protest in Dover, where injuries were sustained by demonstrators on both sides.

***

Instead, many now believe a better answer begins with that most British of pastimes: tea and a chat.

On the day before the Birmingam march, hundreds of the city’s cross-party leaders, religious figures and citizens gathered together at Birmingham Central Mosque to share their concerns over shortcake and jalebi.

“Groups like Pegida are parasites on the real concerns people have,” says John Page from the anti-extremism group Hope not Hate. “So we have to listen to these issues to close the cracks.

Initiatives around the city will attempt to take this approach, which sets a welcome lead not just for the UK, but Europe too.

The blanket smearing by groups like Pegida of Islam as a religion of sexist, homophobic Jihadi Johns places the burden of action disproportionately on the city’s Muslims. “It is our turn now to suffer these attacks,” says Mr Ali, Birmingham Central Mosque’s 42-year-old administrator. “It was the Irish, then the Jews, and now it is the time for us. But we are proud to be British Muslims and we will do what we can to defend this country.” 

A permanent visitors gallery, Visit-my-Mosque events, and publications that condemn Isis, are just some of the ways the community is challenging demonisation. It is even hosting a documentary crew from Channel 4 – a bold move in a city still reeling from Benefits Street.


Birmingham resident, Luke Holland, at a peaceful counter-protest in the city centre.

Mr Ali says: “The extreme right know nothing about Islam, but neither do many Muslim extremists.” The mosque is therefore in the process of formulating a “code of conduct”, making clear that hate speech of any kind is unacceptable.

"We have to help young people become the next Chamberlains and Cadburys and Lucases of this city," regardless of background, says Labour councillor Habib Rehman. Instead of letting them slip into despair and extremism of any kind, "we have to tell them: 'Yes You Khan!’”

Tea and talk is not the most dramatic response to Pegida’s claim it will have “100,000 decent people on the street” by the end of the year. But, in Birmingham at least – the city of Typhoo, where bhangra is as familiar as Bournville, and “No dogs, no Irish!” still sits heavy on the collective mind – tea, for now, means hope.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.