A walk into town to defy the English Defence League

When the far-right came to Birmingham looking for trouble, Muslim community leaders advised staying away but I wanted to see the threat for myself.

It had already been a busy week. My book on extremism, looking at the far right, is due for publication and, after a recent spate of hate attacks against mosques, I have found myself doing a number of radio interviews looking for answers as to what the causes of these crimes might be. Then the English Defence League (EDL) decided to come to my home town Birmingham, their declared purpose being to eradicate our apparent “problem” with “Islamic extremist activity”.

For Muslims this is the month of Ramadan. Across Britain we are fasting and hoping to get closer to God. Except this week, in Birmingham, the EDL march has forced its way onto our agenda. Much time has been spent with my local mosque committee looking at what we can do to reassure the community. I have been involved in a number of meetings with my Imam, youth groups and senior elders looking at what our community response should be.  Some of those meetings have been extremely positive, but the dominant feelings have been fear and anxiety. A number of times my Imam made it clear that Muslims should be "cautious" and not travel to the city centre unless "absolutely necessary".  

I often clashed with the committee because I have felt that as a community we should go about our business as normal.  I argued that we should be united as a community and go to the city centre to register our own protest against the EDL. “Are you mad?” one member of the committee shouted.  “You are likely to cause more trouble. Just stay at home on Saturday and do something productive with your time.”

That is normally sound advice in Ramadan. But as a criminologist and a Muslim I felt compelled to take the bold - or what some people might call stupid - decision to go into the city centre and actively participate in an anti-EDL protest.  With real trepidation and against the wishes of my Imam, who had good reasons to fear for my safety, I went to central Birmingham were where the EDL and the anti-fascist rallies were due to take place.

When I left in the morning my phone didn’t stop beeping with text messages from my family telling me to get back before I got hurt.  As I approached the demonstration I was trying to keep up-to-date with all the local news and was listening to reports that a police officer had been injured and that bottles had been  thrown at police. I started to question whether what I was doing was right and whether I would be safe.

The atmosphere was tense with police vans across the city centre, the noise of sirens and a helicopter overhead capturing images -  and of course the words still ringing in my ear: “don’t visit the city centre unless absolutely necessary.” 

I kept my head low and walked towards the demonstration when, in the corner of my eye I saw five EDL supporters with the Union Jack draped across their backs and cans of beer in their hands chanting abuse.  Hoping to avoid them I crossed the street before one of them looked at me and started hurling abuse: “leave our country” and “go back home.” which became familiar chants of the day.  My heart sank and I honestly believed I had made the biggest mistake of my life.

Then to my relief I saw an anti-fascist banner with the words: “Say no to Islamophobia” and immediately I felt safer. In front of me was a small group of 10 to 15 boys. I asked them whether they were part of the official protest. They simply replied: “No we just hate the EDL because they hate us”.  My research with the Muslim community and Muslim youth has found a really sharp sense of fear about the rise of the far right which has contributed towards the “othering” of these local communities, their alienation and the emergence of a new gang culture. 

 There was a huge police presence in the city centre so perhaps I should not have been afraid. Police from as far as Wales had been called in to help with the operation. At one stage it looked as if both EDL and anti-fascist demonstrators were going to be “kettled” by police – officers in riot gear moved in –  but, thankfully, the threat did not materialise. 

At this point I did wonder if it was really safe for Muslims to be here. The EDL claim they are a non-racist group but I felt uncomfortable and uneasy throughout the day and the fact a police officer had to escort me outside the main area of protest to a place of safety was enough evidence that the danger was real.  As I was reporting what I saw on Twitter I started receiving a messages from supporters of the far right who were not exactly happy with my version of events. I ended up busily “blocking” people who were tweeting abuse at me throughout the day. On my way home I continued to ask myself questions about the events of the day.  What if the EDL had attacked me? Should the EDL be banned?  Why does an organisation like the EDL have so much hatred for Islam? They came to Birmingham following the rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes to whip up more fear and Islamophobia. I am only thankful that the counter-demonstrations were there to let them know they are not welcome.

English Defence League demonstrators in Birmingham. Source: Getty

Imran Awan is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.  You can follow him on Twitter @ImranELSS.

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.