Among the non-New Yorkers who traveled to Lower Manhattan on Saturday to protest the neighborhood’s decision to allow an Islamic community center to be built were seven men who came from England bearing flags with slogans and the cross of St. George — a symbol of their nation and of the Crusades.
Those flags are often seen at soccer stadiums, when ultranationalist fans of England’s soccer team gather to cheer (and to fight fans of other nations), but they have been cropping up regularly at anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim protests in English cities over the past year.
That is because the men are members of a the English Defense League, formed last year to counter what the men see as the threat posed to their national identity by immigrants to England and British-born Muslims who are neither white nor Christian.
As the British anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate explained last month, the E.D.L. is led by a former member of the British National Party, whose leader has made common cause with the Ku Klux Klan, and has “mushroomed from a coalition of former football hooligans into an enormous street army with the propensity for large-scale disorder and city center confrontations with the police.”
After spending months working undercover on an 11-minute documentary about the group, Matthew Taylor reported, “A Guardian investigation has identified a number of known right-wing extremists who are taking an interest in the movement — from convicted football hooligans to members of violent right-wing splinter groups.”
The fact that the E.D.L. channels the rage of hardcore soccer fans into racist demonstrations against foreigners and Muslims in England is no secret. A post on the group’s Web site described the scene before a rally in London last month:
More and more lads started to arrive at the pub, Pompey, Southampton, West Ham, Arsenal, Tottenham, Millwall, Chelsea, Brentford, QPR all drinking together, a bit of banter, but no hassle whatsoever. Top lads all there for their country.The group’s official statements make much of the fact that their membership includes a number of Jewish, Iranian and gay activists and deny charges that it promotes a fascist or racist ideology. The E.D.L. report on the same rally said:
The ‘fascists’ from the various patriot groups are now stood, football rivalries forgotten, side by side with Jews and Iranians, proving once again that these movements are not racial, they are ideological. Islam is not a race, it is a religion. A religion that promotes violence against nonbelievers this induces certain Muslims into a rabid frenzy, these Muslims must be challenged wherever they raise their evil heads.At the rally on Sept. 11 in New York, the group’s banners and T-shirts carried the Israeli flag along with the cross of St. George.
In a report on the group, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz asked, “What are Israeli flags and Jewish activists doing at demonstrations sponsored by the English Defence League?” The newspaper answered the question this way: “Call it a struggle against a common foe: Islam. Or a journey into the heart of darkness. Or perhaps further proof that Europe is starting to lose its mind again.”
Despite the protestations that the group’s members are not racist, The Guardian’s undercover investigator encountered a very different reality. Mr. Taylor reported:
[A]t each demonstration I attended while making an undercover film for the Guardian’s investigative film unit, Guardian Films, I was confronted by casual — often brutal — racism, a widespread hatred of Muslims and often the threat of violence.The woman also used another racial slur, using language we cannot repeat here.
It was only possible to film some of the most alarming scenes with a hidden camera. Inside a pub in Stoke in January about 3,000 E.D.L. supporters gathered for the first demonstration of the year. They had spent the past four hours drinking. The balcony around the top of the cavernous pub was draped in flags bearing the names of different football clubs — Wolves, Newcastle, Aston Villa — and the chants, “We all hate Muslims,” and “Muslim bombers off our streets,” filled the air. The atmosphere was tense, and not just because of the growing anti-Islamic rhetoric. The pub was packed with rival football gangs from across the Midlands and the north of England. Twice, fighting broke out as old rivalries failed to be subdued by the new enemy — Islam. “They’re just kids,” said one man. “That is not what we are here for today.”
As we moved outside for the E.D.L. protest — during which supporters became involved in violent clashes with the police — a woman asked me for a donation to support the “heroes coming back injured from Afghanistan.” I put a pound in the bucket.
“Thanks love,” she said. “They go over there and fight for this country and then come back to be faced with these Pakis everywhere.”
This clip from a BBC documentary on the group includes footage of some members denying that they are racist, and other making racial slurs during a rally in London in support of the anti-immigrant Dutch politician Geert Wilders last year:
Other Guardian video reports on E.D.L. rallies in London and Bradford in recent months illustrate that it is not hard to hear similarly racist, anti-immigrant sentiments from members of the group.
Their approach to Islam is similarly aggressive. Here is how members of the group who did not make the trip to New York marked the Sept. 11 anniversary in London — by burning pages of the Koran and chanting, as they have at other rallies this year in Britain, “Allah is a pedo’!” (Note: This video, like that of other E.D.L. rallies, includes strong language and racial slurs.)
On Sunday, Robert Booth reported in The Guardian that the group’s leader was denied entry to the United States when he landed in New York last week. Other members of the group — which has clashed with British police this summer — claimed that they were subject to harassment by the authorities in New York.
One of the E.D.L. leaders, Ronnie Burgess — described by The Daily Mail as a 31-year-old bodyguard from Liverpool — wrote in a poorly spelled entry on his Facebook page from New York:
its all fun and games here fedral agents have turned are rooms over last ngt while we were out…. hotel are saying they know nothing but the fact is are rooms have been turned overOne of the organizers of the Sept. 11 rally in Lower Manhattan, the blogger Pamela Geller, has defended the group in the past, writing in February, before it was reported that the E.D.L. is led by a former member of the British National Party:
I share the E.D.L.’s goals…. We need to encourage rational, reasonable groups that oppose the Islamisation of the West and not leave it solely to fringe groups like the B.N.P., whose growth has sparked because of their opposition to the encroaching Islamization of the U.K. (their racial position is reprehensible).Like Ms. Geller, the E.D.L. has strongly supported Geert Wilders. Mr. Wilders also traveled to New York from Europe for the rally on Sept. 11 and began his remarks by leading the crowd in chanting, “No mosque here!”
New York Times