Brawls at recent protests highlight how all of us, and especially the media, have a responsibility to fight extremism
On Saturday 8 August a much-touted demonstration in Birmingham turned into a big brawl involving more than 100 people and pitched battles in the high street. In one corner a loose alliance of two groups – Casuals United and English Defence League – in the other, a counter-demonstration called by Unite Against Fascism.
The immediate background to this mass brawl was the protest against British soldiers by some Muslim extremists on 10 March. That was the spark that various far-right groups were looking for to pump up their rhetoric against Muslims. The National Front turned out a big demonstration in Luton on 13 April, which needed police reinforcements from London to control. Not long afterwards, the Luton mosque was fire-bombed.
On 24 May an even bigger demonstration was organised by the English and Welsh Defence League, which turned violent as some demonstrators went to destroy property in Muslim-heavy areas of Luton. There was a smaller protest against extremist Anjem Choudhary on 4 July, and then a big demonstration was organised for 8 August. There's more background here.
There is evidence that the English Defence League in particular was infiltrated by neo-Nazis and BNP supporters. On Stormfront, a popular website for fascists, scores of members urged to join the demonstrations on Saturday. Here is one participant's account.
One of its early organisers Chris Renton is a BNP supporter. Another, Paul Ray, who now says he has washed his hands of the EDL because of differences with Renton, admitted he was opposed to all Muslims practising their faith in Britain.
There are good reasons for minorities to worry, even though some from the EDL carried banners saying they were not racist. During the 4 July protest many participants chanted "Muslims out". As the UAF rightly says, the National Front organised demonstrations against black people in the 70s under the guise of "anti-mugging", and now it seems to be jumping on the "Islamic extremism" bandwagon for the same reason.
More protests are planned over the August bank holiday weekend and in Manchester city centre in early October. There are so many small but hardcore groups involved that I'd advise following Richard's blog for all that.
But there are a few broader points to make, too. I'm not going to condemn the need for minorities to defend themselves in the streets or fight against fascists if necessary. Our forebears fought them off in Southall and it remains as important as ever to keep our streets free from constant far-right intimidation. If the police don't do their job then people will step in to protect themselves.
But that doesn't mean extremist Muslims should be let off the hook. In 2004 the extremist group al-Muhajiroun, in all likelihood also behind the Luton anti-soldiers demonstration, had planned a rally in London where Hindus and Sikhs would be openly converted to Islam. They nearly caused a mini-riot then because Sikh gangs and BNP members had also planned to show up.
Anjem Choudhary carried out a similar stunt recently by apparently converting an 11-year-old boy to Islam. Al-Muhajiroun has always been a small but highly vocal group, which seeks publicity for its stunts to polarise people. It is shunned by mosques across the country, but its stunts nevertheless inflame Hindu, Sikh and white groups thanks to incessant media coverage. Remember, only eight people were involved in the anti-soldiers march in a town with more than 25,000 Muslims, and yet they got front-page coverage.
So here are the choices: the group could be banned for activities on a par with the National Front (it keeps changing its name, the latest being Islam4UK). The police could also become more proactive against extremist groups, and stop local councils giving them any space.
And lastly, Muslim groups themselves need to step up campaigning against these extremists or they will continue making life more difficult for them. More like this, basically.
Britons also need to get re-acquainted with our tradition of free speech and expression, even if it involves people of different skin colour and religion saying outrageous things.
The police and intelligence services also need to start taking far-right extremism in the UK more seriously. To that extent the recent announcements by minister John Denham are most welcome.
But the real people to blame for these riots are the journalists willing to run inflammatory headlines – playing straight into the hands of extremists on both sides. Anjem Choudhary remains a constantly invited figure, even on the BBC, because he offers them entertainment. People are being sucked into a game of sensationalism, which contributed to the mass-brawl on Saturday. It's time for people to stop being taken for mugs.
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