Think of the English Defence League, and the image conjured up is probably violent marches populated by football hooligans. But according to a new report by Demos — the first study of the group — this is not necessarily the case.
In fact, only a small proportion of those who support the EDL have actually been on a march. Only a few thousand ever take to the streets, while closer to 30,000 “like” the group on Facebook. There are no formal membership procedures, as there are for the BNP, so those affiliated with the group are more varied than the general perception.
Perhaps the most important fact in the Demos report is that extremist Islam is not, in fact, the primary concern for the majority of EDL supporters. While the group’s leaders claim that opposing fundamentalist Islam is its primary aim, 42 per cent of respondents cited immigration as their top concern, while just 31 per cent said Islamic extremism. On the other hand, 41 per cent said they joined the group because of their opposition to Islam. Anti-Muslim feeling is clearly a cornerstone of the group — many of its street demonstrations have provocatively been held in predominantly Muslim areas — but despite motivating membership, supporters do not think it is the most important issue in the UK.
In fact, supporters appear to be drawn to the EDL for the same reasons as people have always been attracted to far-right groups. Supporters are disproportionately likely to be unemployed. Among 24 to 65 year olds, 28 per cent of EDL supporters are unemployed, compared with the national average of 6 per cent. They are also deeply pessimistic about the future. Three-quarters of those interviewed for the report were under 30,and 81 per cent were male.
While the EDL has attempted to distance itself from other far-right groups, the survey found that the BNP is the political party with the most support, with 34 per cent of EDL supporters saying they vote for the party.
The report notes that while some supporters leveled abuse at all Muslims, others offered more nuanced criticisms, drawing a distinction between Muslims and extremists.
It recommends that the EDL should not be banned as an extremist group:
The EDL is not one-dimensional, and members’ views are varied. The group is probably best described as a populist movement that contains some extreme right-wing and sometimes Islamophobic elements. Although there are some illiberal and intolerant sentiments voiced by some supporters in this survey (and at demonstrations), many members are in an important sense democrats. Allowing them to protest and demonstrate is an important way to ensure the group does not become more extreme.
There is little doubt that the EDL contains some racist and openly anti-Islamic elements – but this is by no means true of all supporters. The task ahead is to engage with those who are sincere democrats, and isolate those who are not.
The reasoning makes sense; however, it is important not to overlook the more pernicious side of the EDL — the violent marches in Bradford and Tower Hamlets — simply because its informal network of supporters encompass a range of voices. Arbitrarily banning groups is never a good idea, but nor is inconsistency in the government’s treatment of different types of extremist.