I wasn’t in Tower Hamlets on Saturday, when the English Defence League attempted at “static” demonstration there, but I’ve now managed to read through a fair amount of commentary and reportage. It seems it was a victory for everyone. For the EDL, they mobilised something from 600 to 1000 people, got a lot of media attention, drank a lot and had a generally fun day – although they failed to actually get to Tower Hamlets. For the “anti-fascists”, endlessly re-living the Battle of Cable Street, they considerably outnumbered the EDL and managed to keep the bigots out of the borough – except it was the police and not them who managed that. For the police, there was relatively little disorder and mayhem, and Theresa May’s ban on a march managed to get enforced – although it took 3000 pairs of boots on the ground and undoubtedly a huge bill to pay.
The EDL and the Muslims
The English Defence League, parroted by many of its middle class apologists in the Harry’s Place comments threads, claims to be against “Islamism” or “Islamic extremism” and not against “Islam in general”. This claim is completely hollow. Here’s some comments from EDL supporters, to give you a flavour of their real views. Or, more to the point, watch this video of Stephen “Tommy Robinson” Yaxley-Lennon (the EDL’s cult of personality fuhrer) advocating Anders Breivik style policies in London on Saturday:
"Every single Muslim watching this video on youtube, on 77, you got away with killing and maiming British citizens ... you had better understand that we have built a network from one end of the country to the other end... and the Islamic community will feel the full force of the English Defence League if we see any of our British citizens killed maimed or hurt on British soil ever again."
As one Indymedia contributor says, “So if some Islamist terrorists carry out another 77 style attack, it will be the fault of any Muslim living in Britain and they should be attacked?”
Or, for more evidence, read some of the examples from Laurie Penny’s report, which is actually one of the better things she’s written.
Sarah AB quotes Maryam Namazie, who knows a thing or two about Islamism, on this subject in an HP comment thread:
“And it is also clear who [the EDL] are from their tactics, one of which is organising demonstrations in front of mosques and terrorising people passing by or entering. Look, if you are concerned about the political Islamic movement and mosques being funded by Islamic states to promotes Islamism, then by all means demonstrate but why not do it at the Qatar embassy (if you are concerned about the Burnley mosque for example) or for that matter Jack Straw’s office (who is thought to be responsible for the Emir of Qatar’s £1.5 million gift to the mosque). Yes I am opposed to faith schools but I wouldn’t stand with a group that brings out thugs in front of an Islamic school and threatens children going in who are sent their by their parents…”
I wouldn't, by the way, bother reading an HP comment thread on this topic. It’s full of the usual toxicity: HP below-the-line commenters, unlike the above the line posters, see all Muslims as scum and see the EDL as generally good “working class” chaps who are to be applauded for sticking it to the Pakis. Possibly the only perceptive comment I read came from one CBinTowerHamlets:
Unlike your regular extremist organisation, the EDL is not infamous because of its stated agenda, but simply because of its nature, the thuggery of its members and their general Islamophobia. If you were to define it by its stated objectives, namely opposition to [Muslims Against Crusaders, Anjem Chaudhury’s horrible extremist cult] and to compulsory sharia law, then it’s so mainstream that most Muslims would agree with it. If you define it by its members’ behaviour, then even most Islamophobes would steer clear of it. I don’t think it’s a “proper” extremist organisation, it’s just a bunch of angry pals, largely from the football hooligan fraternity, who decided to go demonstrate and enjoy a ‘day out’ doing so. They’re full of latent prejudice but haven’t developed an extremist ideology from it.
The EDL and the Jews
As reported here, EDL leader and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) broke his bail conditions to turn up at the demo – dressed in ridiculous comedy haredi rabbi disguise (under yet another nom de guerre: Rabbi Benjamin Kidderman. He’s a veritable Sacha Baron-Cohen!) – and on the arm of Roberta Moore. Moore, for those lucky enough not to know, is the frothing at the mouth former leader of the EDL’s alleged “Jewish Division” (a handful of American and Israeli Jews and British non-Jews on Facebook, with no real world presence apart from Roberta and a couple of her pals).
The first point about this is that Moore claimed to have parted ways with the EDL on account of it having Nazis in it. In turn, the EDL claimed that they couldn't stomach her because of her links to the Jewish Task Force, Victor Vancier’s vicious and fascist terrorist organisation. In fact, if I were the EDL, I’d want to be shot of her, because most ordinary Zionist Jews wouldn't touch her with a bargepole, as she’s someone who calls the Chief Rabbi a “kapo” for occasionally talking to Muslims. Looks like either they were both lying, or her and Yaxley-Lennon have patched up their differences. (A statement on the “EDL JDIV” website, which I won;t link to, does not clarify mjuch, but says Moore is re-taking leadership of the Division
The second point is the offensiveness of the rabbi garb. As Mark Gardner puts it: “the joke reveals a vital political lesson: The EDL is only interested in Jews (and Israel) as devices with which to try and provoke Muslims. No good will come of this for either Jews or Muslims. It is racist politics and anyone who sincerely cares about anti-racism, Jews, or Israel, should condemn it. “
In fact, it is not unlikely that the EDL’s love affair with the Jews will come to an end, and there is evidence that their Euro-populist kin in other places have already done so.
The EDL and global counter-jihad
Roberta Moore is one of the many figures connecting the EDL to the diffuse and diverse global counter-jihad movement. At the conservative site, American Thinker, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, an intelligent and interesting voice at the moderate end of the anti-jihad movement, whose blog is well worth following) takes up the story. He writes that one of the primary reasons Pamela Geller has declared her support for the EDL is that
the organization has featured a "Jewish division" (hailed by her main colleague as a "development much to be applauded"). The EDL Jewish division's leader -- Roberta Moore -- is described by Geller as the person she "most trusted" in the EDL; and when Moore fell out with the EDL amid professed concern on Moore's part over the presence of neo-fascists in the group, Pamela withdrew her support for the EDL too. What is clear is that she wholeheartedly endorses Moore and the Jewish division, and it was their part in the EDL -- more than anything -- that apparently led Pamela to gush routinely about the EDL. For instance, she once proclaimed how she wished she "could be there to stand with the English Defense League" in support of a rally for Geert Wilders.
In reality, however, the fallout between Moore and the EDL's leadership was not due to allegations of infiltration by neo-Nazis. Rather, the EDL leadership and numerous members of the rank-and-file were alarmed at Moore and the Jewish division's alliance with and outspoken support for the American-based Kahanist group "The Jewish Task Force (JTF)," headed by convicted terrorist Chaim ben Pesach (aka Victor Vancier), who is also banned from entering Israel.
Vancier did much to set back the work of Soviet Jewish dissidents like Natan Sharansky in the 1980s with his bombing campaigns directed at, amongst other targets, an FBI informer's car and a hall where the Soviet State Symphony Orchestra was performing. Unsurprisingly, Vancier has praised Baruch Goldstein -- perpetrator of the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre -- as a "great hero."
In fact, the EDL is itself based on a cult of violence. Its roots are in football hooliganism. It has connections (via co-founder and ex-member Paul Ray) with both Anders Breivik and with organised crime. These people take the clash of civilisations thesis as seriously as al-Qaeda do, and they are working hard to hasten it.
The EDL and class
I was struck by the way in which EDL apologists in the HP comment thread constantly invoke the EDL’s working class, ordinary Joe credentials. This echoes the phenomenon in mainstream politics whereby, as Laurie Penny puts it well, “On both sides of the political spectrum, politicians and policymakers have urged us to try to understand the disenfranchisement of white, far-right groups like the EDL, rather than dismissing their protests as "mindless violence".” In other words, the white working class as beleaguered native becomes an alibi or a cipher for right-wing politics in the hands of privileged members of the political class.
This dishonours the vast majority of working class people, most of whom are not EDL supporters or frothing anti-migrant bigots. It conflates class with ethnicity, because it misses out the fact that most Muslim people in Britain are every bit as authentically salt of the earth working class as the EDL. And it misrepresents the EDL, whose rank and file might be mainly working class, but whose leadership are pretty well-healed and which is funded by American millionaires.
On the other hand, like Patrick Hayes, I also smell more than a whiff of class conceit among liberal anti-EDL commentators, including Laurie Penny, who harp on about the EDL’s cropped hair, football shirts and beer guts. Surely the liberal de-humanising of the EDL is not that different from Tory politicians talking about a feral underclass?
The EDL and fascism
Most liberals, as well as the sub-Trotskyists of the SWP, see the EDL as fascist. I’ve said this before on this blog, but I don't think this is a helpful appellation. Going back to CB’s comment I already quoted, I think this is a better characterisation, if less useful for turning into chants on a demo: “I don’t think it’s a “proper” extremist organisation, it’s just a bunch of angry pals, largely from the football hooligan fraternity, who decided to go demonstrate and enjoy a ‘day out’ doing so. They’re full of latent prejudice but haven’t developed an extremist ideology from it.” It is true that there are fascists and ex-fascists in the leadership of the EDL, but they lack most of the features that define fascism. I think they are more comparable to the “proto-fascist” anti-alien groups that operated in the East End a hundred years ago, like the British Brothers League.
However, that doesn't mean that anti-fascists shouldn't pay attention to them. Just as the anti-alien movement mutated into Mosleyism, the EDL have the potential to become much more ideologically malignant. And anyway the terror and hate they spread among Asian communities is reason enough to want to crush them. So, in the next part of this post, I turn to some of the issues around the anti-fascist response to the EDL.
Peter Tatchell and Islamist homophobia
Peter Tatchell bravely and honourably took a contrarian position at the demonstration, marching with placards saying "Stop EDL & far right Islamists. No to ALL hate" and on the other side: "Gays & Muslims UNITE! Stop the EDL". I find his brand of identity politics intensely grating, the notion that “the LGBT community” should be speaking with one voice on every issues, “as” LGBTs. (And since when did LGBT become a noun Peter, instead of an adjective?)
But I admire the courage and consistency with which he articulates it. Here, he notes the lack of such consistency among his fellow identitarians: “there were lots of LGBT protesters against the EDL. But I never saw a single one with a gay badge, placard, t-shirt or rainbow flag. It was as if they'd all gone back in the closet. Why? Normally, on other demos, they always proclaim their LGBT identity. How strange. We were the only visibly gay protesters in the entire anti-EDL demonstration.” And in this case, because the EDL claim to speak for LGBT people under attack from Islamists, there’s a very good reason to be there “as” a queer, to show the EDL don’t speak for gay people – a point Andy Godfrey made here.
Tatchell also records the abuse he received from a small handful of Muslim youths in Tower Hamlets and from their (presumably non-Muslim) LGBT fellow travellers. But he also records that he won many over, and that he was defended by Muslims too.
The only problem I have with what he says is that Muslim and LGBT appear as mutually exclusive categories in his formula “Gays & Muslims UNITE!", and his “LGBTs” seem to be normatively white. Of course, few mainstream practising Muslims are out gays or identify with the lilywhite, middle class, queer culture Tatchell speaks for. And in the identity politics game there is only really room for one identity, so if Muslims are under attack, as they are now, the Muslim identity is likely to have the trump hand. But I know there are plenty of lesbian and gay people in East London who identify as Muslim or who are ethnically Bangladeshi and from Muslim backgrounds, and Tatchell seems to be keeping them invisible here. There are indeed grassroots LGBT Muslim groups, like Imaan, who Tatchell ought to be working with.
However, where I completely agree with Tatchell is when he says this:
What too many anti-fascists refuse to acknowledge is that Islamist fundamentalism mirrors the right-wing ideology of the EDL (and the BNP). In fact, the Islamist goals are much more dangerous. They want to establish a theocratic tyranny, ban trade unions and political parties and deny women equal human rights. They endorse hatred and violence against Jewish, Hindu and LGBT people. Muslims who don't follow their particular brand of Islam would face severe persecution in their Islamist state. These fanatical sects condone terrorism and the suicide bombing of innocent civilians. Not even the BNP and EDL are this extreme.
The failure of many people on the Left to speak out against Islamist fundamentalism is de facto collusion with extremism and a betrayal of the Muslim majority. It also creates a political vacuum, which the EDL is seeking to exploit and manipulate.
Some anti-fascists argue that we should not condemn the Islamists because this will fuel anti-Muslim sentiment. Wrong. Protesting against the fundamentalists and defending mainstream Muslims is actually the most effective way to undermine Islamophobia.
In the absence of a left-wing critique of the Islamist far right, the EDL is able to pose as the sole critic of Islamist extremism and to mount indiscriminate attacks on the whole Muslim community.
This silence and inaction by many on the left is objectively (albeit unintentionally) colluding with both fundamentalist fanaticism and anti-Muslim prejudice.
To be credible and effective, opponents of the EDL need to be consistent by also taking a stand against right-wing Islamists. Only this way can we offer a principled alternative to the EDL that isolates and targets the extremists without demonising the whole Muslim population.
I endorse that point 100%. Yet Tatchell is little more than a lone voice making it. In fact, he is heavily demonised in radical circles. I’ve been told he is a “homonationalist”, a “queer imperialist”, and of course an “Islamophobe” and probably a “neocon” for speaking the truth on this matter. But while the ultra-radicals who use that language defend Islamists, they can never build a real alliance with them, or indeed with mainstream Muslims. They can be Islamism’s useful idiots, but they will never be respected on their own terms by any Muslim. Their defence is both dishonest and ultimately racist – the racism of low expectations: amongst their white friends, they talk the pro-choice, anti-heteronormative, morally libertarian dogma, but anyone who tries to impose this on brown people is a homonationalist or queer imperialist. In contrast, Tatchell’s refusal to pretend to be someone else for the benefit of the bigots, and his dogged insistence on honestly “engaging”, and on washing dirty laundry in public, is the only way forward for a meaningful alliance between the left and the communities under attack from the EDL.
Tatchell is also attacked by Simon of Latte Labour who trots out “liberal interventionist”, “decent left” and, crime of crimes, no longer “a lefty” to tar the man. Simon’s post makes some good points, but is incoherent. For starters, Simon says “We are not told which "Islamic fundamentalists" Tatchell has in mind.” I think it’s pretty obvious: the ones whose provocations in the East End and elsewhere (including “Gay-free zone” stickers) fuel the EDL. Simon says “Of course there are issues with [LGBT rights] amongst Muslims, as there are in all other significant religious and cultural groups.” But Tatchell isn’t talking about Muslim homophobia; he’s talking about Islamist homophobia. Simon says “After I've stood shoulder-to-shoulder to [a homophobic Muslim] on a protest march, or formed a line around his mosque, after he has witnessed a local LGTBQ group helping to defend him and his fellow worshippers from fascists - then the response might be very different when I challenge a homophobic comment than it otherwise might have been.” But that’s precisely what Tatchell is doing: standing against the EDL in solidarity with East End Muslims but as a gay man. I’ll stop there, because Carl refutes Simon’s post extremely well, so read him instead of me. (Andy Godfrey, more convincingly and at much less length, makes some similar points to Simon.)
Tatchell was attacked from the other side (well, attacked is too strong a word, because it was a very sympathetic attack) by Jonathan Narvey at The Propagandist. Jonathan tells of Peter for arguing with the homophobic kids. “You don't argue with haters. You walk away from them. You tell them to fuck off.” Actually, if Tatchell’s account is truthful, it seems he won some of the haters over, so I think he took the right strategy. But I also felt Narvey’s position was a little hollow, given he thinks we should engage with bigots like the Jewish Defence League, who I think are well described as haters. “Tatchell clearly can't tell his friends from his enemies”, Jonathan continues. But it seems to me that Tatchell is one of the few people who sees that we have more than one set of enemies.
Hope not Hate and Islamism
Edmund Standing at Harry’s Place, an uncompromising opponent of the EDL, makes some strong criticisms of the main anti-EDL groups. I have mixed feelings about his take. He starts with Hope not Hate, and reprimands them for not demonstrating against Islamist extremism, a position that seems superficially similar to Tatchell’s, and a point related to one which Carl Packman made a while ago and reiterated here. Without wanting to speak for HnH, I disagree with Standing. It seems to me that anti-fascists should indeed oppose right-wing Islamism, for the reasons Tatchell sets out, but not because Islamism is some version of “fascism”. It is related to fascism, but it is different, and therefore it is not the business of HnH, as HnH, to take on Islamism.
Taking on Islamism should be a parallel project, ideally led by non-Islamist Muslims. It would be equally absurd to say that One Law for All, Quilliam or Muslims for a Secular Democracy should actually spend their time campaigning against the BNP. No doubt they do as individuals, but not as anti-Islamists. (Standing’s position reminds me of the standard Trotskyist line about more or less every issue, from defending local libraries to protesting GM crops, that it should “link up” to the class struggle, i.e. be subordinated to the Leninist party.) I think we need a smarter approach.
So, while it is right for anti-fascist individuals, like Tatchell, to protest Islamism and the EDL; protesting Islamism can’t be the main job of anti-fascist organisations.
Hope not Hate, liberal anti-fascism and state bans
Standing also criticises HnH for its links to Socialist Unity, “one of only 5 blogs linked to on Hope Not Hate’s website. Socialist Unity is a blog which routinely smears opponents of Islamism as ‘Islamophobes’ or ‘racists’. It is a website whose writers include John Wight, a man who has linked approvingly to a Holocaust denial website”. I agree that this is an unwise move, but it seems a relatively trivial indictment.
My criticism of HnH is different. I feel that its version of liberal anti-fascism – get the government to ban the march, get the police to arrest the EDL – is wrong and counter-productive. Getting the state to ban protests can never be a good thing. While I shed no tears at the march being banned, I can’t help feeling we’ll be paying for it later. We’ll be paying for it by letting the EDL (like the BNP) pose as the underdog victims of a liberal, politically correct elite. (Tommy Robinson has promised a hunger strike now he’s been re-arrested, so determined is he to play the martyr.) And we’ll be paying for it when it’s our protests that get banned.
Unite Against Fascism, “militant” anti-fascism and macho posturing
Standing also attacks Unite Against Fascism, noting that it is an SWP front and that its spokesperson Weyman Bennett has reportedly made antisemitic comments in the past. Many Harry’s Place types, as well as Andy Newman of Socialist Unity, also indicts UAF for its thuggery. The UAF these days likes to present itself as the “militant” alternative to HnH (after years of attacking AFA for “squadism” (see comment thread here), but to my mind they’re all mouth and no trousers, as the saying goes. Seventy five years ago, the Communist Party tried to force people to rally at Trafalgar Square when Mosley was due to march through the East End; only two days before the march, they caved into the Jewish East End rank and file and agreed to support the mobilisation that we know as the Battle of Cable Street, for fear of looking a bit pathetic at Hyde Park when the masses would stay in Stepney. History repeats itself, and about 48 hours before the EDL march, UAF switched from rallying at Weaver’s Fields to call for meeting on Whitechapel Road, i.e. where most East End anti-fascists would be anyway – and then took the credit for stopping the EDL from getting there. (As far as I can tell, there is barely a word of truth in the Socialist Worker tabloid’s report of the day.)
Edmund Standing also attacks the Islamists involved in anti-EDL mobilisation in Tower Hamlets, including activists of the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), which is a Muslim Brotherhood organisation which has played a complex entrist game in East End politics, controlling Lutfur Rahman’s independent mayoral campaign and major slices of Labour, Respect and the other parties. IFE and the East London Mosque were major players in United East End, the third main group in the anti-fascist camp on Saturday. Carl gives us the reasons why this lot are not good allies. For example, “In 2009, the London Muslim Centre, which is part of the ELM, located adjacent to it, hosted a video link of 9/11 spiritual leader Anwar al-Awlaki, as part of a conference on the “end of days” – advertising poster of which illustrated bombs dropping over a darkened New York City.” You could get plenty more examples from Martin Bright.
Another blot on the anti-fascist camp is those who try and reinforce the myth that the EDL are some kind of Zionist front. That’s what the BNP called them, but the sentiment is mainly shared by the anti-Zionist ultras of Respect, JBIG, Jews Against Zionism and so on, with Respect’s Carole Swords and JBIG’s Deborah Fink more or less perfectly mirroring Roberta Moore. The second part of Mark Gardner’s post is good on this topic:
“there are those in the anti-Israel brigade who appear unable to stop placing Zionism and Israel at the centre of their world-view [such as] Carole Swords, a senior Respect activist in Tower Hamlets, whom CST Blog recently noted as having told pro-Israel activists to “go back to bloody Russia!”. “Go back to bloody Russia!” is the kind of “Send ‘Em Back!” sentiment that the EDL can likely identify with; but Swords was most certainly not on the EDL’s side this (or any other) weekend. The boycott Israel activists, including Swords, can be seen in the below video. Its title, “Tower Hamlets kick out the EDL & their Israeli Propogandist [sic] allies”, dangerously alleges that there was some kind of meaningful and independent pro-Israel participation in the EDL’s anti-Muslim provocation. (Swords comes in at about 2.18, amongst those attempting to muster up “Free Palestine” chants from the anti-EDL demonstrators.)
The potential and actual linkage between antisemitic incidents and anti-lsrael sentiment (e.g, see this hateful graffiti from Manchester last week) is blatant; and linking pro-Israelis with the EDL risks serious antisemitic escalations wherever EDL intensifies its actions.
So, what should we do?
I’ve used the second part of this post to basically criticise all the main and some of the minor forms of anti-fascism that were mobilised against the EDL, and had very little positive to say about anyone. So what do I think we should do? This question requires an answer on two levels. On the immediate level, there’s what we should do on days like September 3. The old militant anti-fascist physical force strategy seems suicidal in the current policing climate and when the EDL are mobilising a thousand bodies, so simply making our presence felt on the other side of the police lines is probably all we can do.
In the long run, though, I think we need to re-build the anti-fascist movement. We need an anti-fascist movement that escapes the left ghetto. We need a movement that faces in at least two ways at once. It needs to be able to orientate to the white working class constituencies the EDL attempt to mobilise, which means not “defending multiculturalism” or apologising for Islamism, but actually relating to the real, concrete concerns of people like Connor’s mum in Laurie Penny’s report. But we also need to orientate to the Muslims and other Asians who are under attack from the EDL terror. I think both these orientations require a very sharp critique of Islamism as well as a more mature analysis of the EDL.
Previously: Anti-fascism in a new era (May 2011); Counter-jihad and right-wing terror (August 2011); An enormous EDL post (October 2010); The Sweden Democrats and the rise of Euro-nationalism (October 2010); Re-thinking the anti-fascist paradigm (September 2010); The EDL and the neo-cons; Lots of links; From Whitechapel to Gaza (June 2010); The EDL in the East End last time round (June 2010).