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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.

EDL marchers
English Defence League demonstrators in Birmingham. Source: Getty

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.