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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To heal Britain’s cracks, it’s time for us northern graduates in London to return home

Isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

I’m from Warrington. The least cultured town in the UK. My town.

I moved to London almost exactly five years ago. Not because I particularly wanted to. Not because I wanted to depart the raucous northern town that I still call home. Because it was my only choice, really. I’d done my stint in the call centres and had some fun. But that couldn’t, surely, be my lot?

After university, I’d already started feeling a little weird and out of place back in Wazza. There were fewer and fewer people who didn’t look at me like I’d just fallen off a futuristic space flight that’d given me a different accent and lofty ideals.

Of course, that’s because most people like me had already skipped town without looking back and were all in the capital trying to strike beyond the ordinary.

The young, the cities, the metropolitan elite are still reeling after last week’s vote and wondering how people, half of our people, have got it so horribly wrong. We’re different, divided, done for.  

One thing I’ve clung onto while I’ve been in London is the fact that I’m from Warrington and proud. It might not be a cultured town, but it’s my town.

But I wasn’t proud of the outcome of the EU referendum that saw my town vote 54.3 per cent to 45.7 per cent to leave.

To be fair, even in my new “home” borough of Hackney, east London, the place with the third-largest Remain vote, one in five people voted for Brexit.

Yes, in one of London’s hottest and most international neighbourhoods, there are quite a lot of people who don’t feel like they’re being taken along to the discotheque.

Perversely, it was the poorest places in the UK that voted in largest numbers to leave the EU – that’s the same EU that provides big chunks of funding to try to save those local economies from ruin.

In many ways, of course, I understand the feelings of those people back in the place I still sometimes think of as home.

Compared to many suffering places in the UK, Warrington is a “boom town” and was one of the only places that grew during the last recession.

It’s a hub for telecoms and logistics companies, because, ironically, its good transport links make it an easy place to leave.

But there are many people who aren’t “living the dream” and, like anywhere else, they aren’t immune from the newspaper headlines that penetrate our brains with stories of strivers and scroungers.

Warrington is one of the whitest places in the UK, and I’m sure, to many locals, that means those immigrants are only a few towns away. There’s already a Polski sklep or two. And a few foreign taxi drivers. Those enterprising bastards.

We have never seriously addressed the economic imbalance in our economy. The gaping north-south divide. The post-industrial problem that politicians in Westminster have handily ignored, allowing the gap to be filled by those who find it quick and easy to blame immigrants.

When schemes like HS2, which is plotted to smash right through the place I grew up, are pushed against all of the evidence, instead of a much-needed, intercity Leeds to Liverpool investment to replace the two-carriage hourly service, it’s like positively sticking two fingers up to the north.

But I am also a big problem. People like me, who get educated and quickly head off to London when things aren’t going our way. We invested in ourselves, sometimes at state expense, and never really thought about putting that back into the places where we grew up.

There weren’t the right opportunities back home and that still stands. But, rather than doing something about that, people like me lazily joined the gravy train for London and now we’re surprised we feel more kinship with a 20-something from Norway than we do with someone who we used to knock on for when we should have been at school.

That’s not to suggest that our experiences in the capital – or mine at least – haven’t made us a thousand, million times better. 

I’ve met people who’ve lived lives I would never have known and I’m a profoundly better person for having the chance to meet people who aren’t just like me. But to take that view back home is increasingly like translating a message to someone from an entirely different world.

“You know, it’s only because you live in a country like this that a woman like you is allowed to even say things like that,” assured one of my dad’s friends down at the British Legion after we’d had a beer, and an argument or two.

Too right, pal. We live in what we all like to think is an open and tolerant and progressive society. And you’re now saying I shouldn’t use that right to call you out for your ignorance?

We’re both Warringtonians, English, British and European but I can increasingly find more agreement with a woman from Senegal who’s working in tech than I can with you.

It’s absolutely no secret that London has drained brains from the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world, to power its knowledge economy.

It’s a special place, but we have to see that there are many people clamouring for jobs they are far too qualified for, with no hope of saving for a home of their own, at the expense of the places they call home.

It’s been suggested in the past that London becomes its own city-state, now Londoners are petitioning to leave the UK.

But isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

We can expect local governments to do more with less, but when will we accept we need people power back in places like Warrington if we want to change the story to one of hope?

If this sounds like a patronising plan to parachute the north London intelligentsia into northern communities to ensure they don’t make the same mistake twice... Get fucked, as they say in Warrington.

It was Warrington that raised me. It’s time I gave something back.

Kirsty Styles is editor of the New Statesman's B2B tech site, NS Tech.