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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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad