How the Manchester bombing turned the city into a symbol for the far-right

On 22 May 2017, Salman Abedi killed 22 people at a pop concert in the city. 

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Tuesday 22 May 2018, the anniversary of suicide bomber Salman Abedi killing 22 innocent people at an Ariana Grande concert, brings to a close a year of landmark dates in the city of Manchester.

Soon after the attack, it emerged that Abedi, an Islamist extremist, had become increasingly radicalised after visiting his parents homeland of Libya in 2011. It shone a spotlight on Manchester’s Libyan community, and the divides between liberal Muslims and Islamists within it.

The aftermath of the attack, though, also revealed a different kind of extremism. Those with a far-right agenda converged on Manchester, seeking to foment rage against the Muslim faith.

This Saturday, the Football Lads’ Alliance (FLA) gathered to, in their words, “protest extremism”. Stand Up To Racism Manchester said they were holding a “racist march”. The FLA did not respond to my requests for a comment on the event.

It’s not the first time a group on the far-right has come to the city.

Less than a month after the arena attack, on 11 June 2017, a group of protesters with roots in the English Defence League showed up to march.

Calling themselves “UK Against Hate”, the marchers included EDL co-founder Tommy Robinson. They were met by hundreds of extra police and anti-fascist demonstrators countering their message.

This time round, the FLA appeared to be outnumbered by anti-racist campaigners who gathered in St Peter’s Square.

More poignantly, Survivors Against Terror, a group representing those who lost loved ones to terror, signed a letter calling for the public to join the fight against terrorism. The 41 signatories included Brendan Cox, husband of Jo, and a number of survivors and victims affected by the Manchester attack.

Dan Hett and Figen Murray, the brother and mother of 29-year-old bomb victim Martyn Hett, are two who have signed the statement, which calls out “those driving hatred,” adding: “Hatred is the sea that terrorists need to swim in, if we take on that hatred, we dry up that sea.”

For Hett, Manchester has been all too easy for those with a far-right agenda to exploit.

The 32-year-old has spent the last year pushing back against those who seek to divide the city, an effort which came to a head on

Hett himself told the crowd: “Over the last year I have spent a lot of time dealing with the most unbelievable commentary from the right-wing, which has been unbelievably difficult.”

The response from the far-right has been defiant. A recent comment from a tweeter with an FLA badge as their avatar asserted of Hett: “He's sold out his brothers memory if you ask me disgraceful [sic].”

“I definitely feel it’s an increasingly middle class, accepted racism,” he tells me when we speak. “The English Defence League ten years ago was associated with football louts. The crowds at recent events are mixed, representing a wider proportion of society.”

Although the FLA claimed to be expressing solidarity with Manchester, Martyn’s mum said they were “showing disrespect” by marching, which Hett agrees with.

But in speaking out against racism, Hett has been targeted by the likes of the FLA and other right-wingers.

“Online discourse is difficult, it’s a very polarised way of going through the arguments. The population has been united in positivity, but the problems we’re facing now are problems for a broader subset of people than before.

“A lot of the underlying problems of people being disaffected and dissatisfied with the way we’re handling things is not going away. It’s getting worse. This open Islamophobia... we’re got racists comfortable in the street.”

Hett says he welcomes discussion with those on the right.

“I think a lot of really hard-left people will shut these discussions down, and I actually think you need to listen to them – to a point.”

As far as those using the bombing to exploit Manchester for anti-Islamic feeling, they speak about “freedom of speech” in the modern era. Hett is unerring in his judgement.

“They don’t want freedom of speech, what they want is freedom from consequence.

“We’re fairly fraught at the moment in Manchester. For them to say, ‘this is the perfect time for us to gather and march against extremism’... I’d argue that if I go and speak in one school to a bunch of students, I’ve done infinitely more.”

He adds: “I don’t agree every single person marching with the FLA is a straight-up racist. There is a significant portion of people who say, ‘I’m disaffected, I want to voice my opinion’.”

The Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, is at the heart of all of this, but Murray, Martyn’s mother, recently told the Independent: “I will never use his name, he doesn’t deserve it… He should be forgotten, but the people he killed should never be forgotten.”

Hett believes there are those on all sides who are scared, including those from Abedi’s community in South Manchester.

“After the attacks there was this enormous push against Islam and the idea this guy was a ‘home-grown’ terrorist.”

“I can't speak for everyone in a community, but I've got a few very devout Muslim friends who are terrified at this prominence of the right-wing. It's creating a very ‘hostile environment’ for everyone of that faith or ethnicity.

“I would be scared. I’m half-Turkish and I’m not a practising Muslim. My personal experience [of Manchester Muslims] has been one that is welcoming. I have not had any requests to engage in meaningful debate with anyone from the far right, but there have been engagements with people in the Muslim community.”

Hett has spent the last year speaking in schools and has been part of some sobering conversations.

“That’s where I’ve been learning so much about how afraid everybody is at the moment. The racists are afraid, everyone is afraid.”

Following the FLA event on Saturday, there are reports a splinter group – the Democratic FLA – will be coming to march on 2 June.

Hett adds: “The right-wing are mobilising. It feels like things are simmering. I don’t know how this is going to play out, but I don’t think it’s finished yet.”

Manchester is not ignoring genuine concerns, says Greater Manchester Metro Mayor Andy Burnham who marked his first year in office earlier this month.

Burnham’s mayoralty has been punctuated by the events associated with 2017’s attack.

“The spirit we had in the city last year needs to carry on building. That's still the clear mood of the majority of people,” he tells me.

“We're very much a city in recovery and there's a long way to go. There's a sense of foreboding, but the sense of togetherness is palpable.”

As for the FLA or any similar groups, Burnham is careful to point out “as a city we don't stop free speech”, adding: “But we don’t in any way allow hate speech.”

“There is a debate about what more we must do to tackle extremism. I don’t want anyone to claim we turn away from that issue.”

Last September, Burnham set up an independent commission on how to tackle extremism and radicalisation.

“We are asking tough questions about how to tackle extremism in every community. If people are claiming we don't do, they're wrong, because we are challenging ourselves.”

Chaired by Cllr Rishi Shori of Bury Council, the group is expected to report its findings in July, and Burnham is positive about its impact, in spite of those seeking to divide the city.

“There's a very big difference between Greater Manchester looking into our own reactions and those people who are coming here to try to spread hate.

“They are emphatically not welcome in our city.”