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 UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.