The Left should mobilise against religious extremism as well as the far right

Anti-fascists who happily march against the BNP or EDL rarely show that level of commitment against Anjem Choudhary’s group. Why?

On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York 18 months ago, I found myself in front of the American embassy in London being heckled by Muslims Against Crusades (MAC) activists, and praised by English Defence League members. While our motley group held up placards aimed at Anjem Choudhary’s group, a small group of religious Muslims (sporting beards and hijabs) arrived and set up a table with biscuits and Union flags. Then they started handing out flyers explaining why MAC were distorting Islam. The MAC activists were momentarily confused. Then they started heckling them too. The EDL almost felt ignored.

A week earlier, a friend had called to express his anger that MAC were planning a demonstration that day, and wanted to show that not all Muslims agreed with them. So we organised our own counter-demonstration and made our own banners. EDL members, who had come to throw abuse at MAC, were so pleased by our presence they wanted to take pictures with us (we declined). It was a bizarre day, but we also decided that this had to become a regular thing.

One thing we know – at least one of the key suspects in the Woolwich attack on Lee Rigby was a member of Anjem Choudhary’s inner circle. Before Muslims Against Crusades they called themselves Islam4UK and before that, Al-Muhajiroun. During the Danish Cartoons controversy of early 2006 they held an infamous demo in London calling for the beheading of "those who insult Islam". They are banned from almost every mosque in the country and ostracized by almost every British Muslim community group.

It was Al-Muhajiroun that sparked the formation of the EDL after a protest in Luton as British soldiers marched by. It is always Al-Muhajiroun that pull publicity stunts designed to inflame the media: burning poppies on Rememberance Day, marching on Wootton Basset and so on.

This makes it all the more remarkable that left-wing groups don’t mobilise against these religious extremists as they do against the far-right. Anti-fascists who happily march against the BNP or EDL rarely show that level of commitment against Anjem Choudhary’s group. Why? There even seems to be a reticence to admit that the EDL feeds off Muslim extremists. I’m not saying the Left embraces or even excuses away these clerics, but this strange reticence across the Left not only allows them to fester, but has other consequences.

For a start, taking on Muslim extremists denies a space for the English Defence League to flourish. Sure, many EDL members are looking for any excuse to express their racism, but the far-right group also draws in recruits who don’t consider themselves racist but want to oppose religious extremists. Having a range of Muslims and non-Muslims publicly opposing the likes of MAC is also the best way to silence rightwing critics who use the latter to demonise and generalise about all Muslims.

Secondly, building a broad alliance against religious extremists would also shed light on other unsavoury groups. In recent years university campuses have invited xenophobic preachers such as Haitham al-HaddadKamal El Mekki and others, despite their extreme views on women, homosexuals and integration. Islamic Societies at KingstonLondon South Bank and London Metropolitan universities have all come under deserved criticism, while the UK-based Islamic Education & Research Academy has a whole roster of xenophobic preachers. These groups and socities shouldn’t be banned – after all we must value free speech – but they should be actively opposed by left-wingers who care about the proliferation of bigotry in our society. Otherwise its painfully obvious that we are not applying our principles consistently.

The third and perhaps the most important reason we must do this is to support more moderate Muslims. Take imam Usama Hasan for example. Two years ago he received death threats after giving a talk at his mosque backing evolution and women’s rights. After a futile struggle he was eventually forced out by extremists who made his life hell. He told me he isn’t alone, and that extremists preachers who are less publicity-hungry than the likes of Anjem Choudhary and Abu Hamza are diligently working to take over mosques and oust more moderate Muslims who preach integration. By ignoring Muslim extremists we also abandon the likes of imam Hasan, who want to preach a more incusive version of Islam.

In 2010, after a poppy-burning stunt by Al-Muhajiroun, campaigners from Hope Not Hate adopted a "plague on both their houses" approach, with the approval of their members. But within days they were branded as "Islamophobes" by certain other anti-fascists and came under a surprising amount of criticism. This has to stop. In the aftermath of Woolwich, if we are serious about undermining the EDL and tackling all forms of bigotry, we cannot ignore religious extremism.

Flowers lie outside Woolwich Barracks. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era