You have probably read all about the planned EDL protest in Leicester on Saturday, but do you know what the group really stands for? Adam Wakelin reports on their short but stormy history
If the cause was different, you might be tempted to call it a rainbow coalition. Football hooligans, neo-Nazis, gay rights activists, disillusioned BNP supporters who think the nasty party's gone soft and more besides: protest movements have seen some rum old alliances down the years, but nothing quite like the disparate bunch who gather under the English Defence League banner.
You could equally call it an unholy alliance, if it weren't for the fact that the EDL has Christian and Jewish supporters and has been trying to encourage Hindu and Sikh youths to join the group's protest in Leicester this weekend.
What binds them all together? A common enemy. Islamic fundamentalism.
"We are fighting an extreme interpretation of Islam, people who have no qualms about killing themselves and other people in the process," says Guramit Singh, event organiser and EDL spokesman.
"It's a grass roots social movement."
Prime Minister David Cameron has a rather different view. "Dreadful people," was his verdict on the EDL during the election campaign.
Journalist Matthew Taylor, who followed activists earlier this year for an exposé in the Guardian, said the group acts as a "lightning rod for people with a range of grievances who appear to be coalescing around a rampant Islamophobia."
"At each demonstration I attended, I was confronted by casual – often brutal – racism, a widespread hatred of Muslims and often the threat of violence," he wrote.
And on Saturday, they're coming to Leicester.
So what is the real driving force behind this group that will descend on our city in a couple of days, provoking a counter Unite Against Fascism protest, and costing hundreds of thousands of pounds to police? Who are the EDL?
The English Defence League was born in the aftermath of an ugly demonstration by a small extremist Muslim group in March last year against homecoming troops parading through Luton. Its growth since then has been rapid. The EDL now has between 200 and 300 divisions across England, claims Guramit, and is affiliated to similar defence leagues in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Links have also been forged with groups in Europe and the USA. Luton was the "spark that ignited the fire," he says.
People were sick of the creeping Islamification of Britain and the failure of mainstream politicians to protect our "democratic freedoms" from the medieval dogma of militant Muslims and their Sharia law, reckons Guramit, who got involved with the EDL when it marched through his home town of Nottingham last year.
"There are more than 100 Sharia courts practising on a daily basis," he claims.
Sharia law is a "racist, fascist, paedophilic law", he insists; a law which condones child marriage, imprisons women behind burkhas, legitimises female circumcision and wants to take over the world.
Actually, it doesn't. Sharia courts in the UK don't trample over the laws of the land. They're mainly a forum for resolving matrimonial disputes. In truth, they're the Islamic equivalent of Relate.
The idea that the EDL arrived out of nowhere is wrong, reckons Simon Cressy, a journalist for the anti-fascist monitoring organisation Searchlight. Simon, not his real name, has been keeping a watchful eye on the EDL since day one.
The rump of the EDL, he claims, is a shotgun marriage of football hooligans and extreme right-wingers who have been lurking in the shadows for years. Its self-proclaimed leader is a man who is said to have taken the name of a notorious Luton Town FC football hooligan, Tommy Robinson, as his pseudonym.
Searchlight claim the man behind the pseudonym has a BNP past and a conviction for assaulting an off-duty police officer. "The EDL has quite a lot of unsavoury characters, not the sort of people you want to congregate around," says Simon.
Football hooligan firms are the foundation of the EDL, claims Simon. They use Facebook and established hooligan networks to organise.
The EDL, which has no formal membership structure, has also been a magnet for neo-Nazis and older National Front thugs who've found themselves marginalised by the BNP's desire to present themselves as more respectable.
But it would be wrong to dismiss them as a simple replay of the far-right street movements of the past.
"Black and white unite in Leicester," says the EDL poster for this weekend's protest. The group has launched a Jewish section, with its own Facebook page. There is also a "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender division," says Simon, but their presence has noticeably thinned at recent marches.
"The EDL has made a number of representations to Hindu and Sikh youths in Leicester to come out and march," he says.
Taking a stand against Islamic extremism might be the rallying cry, but Simon claims it's just a front. "The majority of the EDL will be in Leicester for one reason," he says. "They will be there to get drunk and have a fight. They are not serious people with a political agenda."
Surprisingly, Guramit makes no attempt to play down the football hooligan element of the EDL. If anything, he's rather proud of them.
"Most of the main football firms in the country are involved," he says. "It's the only time football hooligans have come together. One Saturday they are kicking the s*** out of one another, the next weekend they are buying one another a drink.
"At the end of the day, we need our army," says Guramit. "We don't need counsellors and school teachers against militant Muslim youth, we need our army, so I don't have a problem with them. It's nothing to me if they want to have a fight on a weekend basis. Some of them are friends and brothers to me."
Guramit has visited Leicester "four or five times".
He says he's seen three to five-year-olds in burkhas and talks of no-go areas that have been "ethnically cleansed" by Muslims. Which is a bit odd because anyone who lives here and strolled through those "no-go areas" won't have seen that.
"In some areas of Leicester there are more burkhas than baseball hats and that shouldn't be allowed," he says. "I'm not really a PC sort of person" says Guramit. "I may say things that other people might find offensive."
Proof of that can be found on a video of him posted You Tube.
Guramit, brandishing a megaphone at an EDL rally, can be heard bellowing: "God bless the Muslims. They'll need it for when they're burning in ****ing hell".
And he's their official spokesman, someone who addressed that braying crowd as "one of the 12 leaders of the English Defence League".
It was a slip of the tongue, says Guramit. He missed a word out. He meant to say "Muslim extremists... burning in ****king hell".
It's interesting that Guramit sees extremists everywhere. Could it be that it takes one to know one? "I say an eye for an eye," he says. "If people want to behead me and take my mum and my grandma as war booty then I'm going to fight them."
Take your mum and grandma as war booty? What? In Nottingham?
It could happen, believes Guramit. If people don't take a stand, he claims, Britain will become an Islamic state.
"As a British-born Sikh I've learned about the 10 Gurus that sacrificed themselves to save India from militant Islam. Everything they fought for is being washed away by the third Jihad. I'm against any fascist ideology that wants to take over my life and my family's life."
The EDL's core support "appears to be young white men who are often fuelled by drink and sometimes drugs", according to Matthew Taylor's report in the Guardian.
Simon, from Searchlight, says most are working-class, male and aged 16 to 40. Strongholds are Yorkshire, Lancashire, Birmingham and London. That's where the vast majority will be coming from on Saturday.
Professor Colin Copus, director of De Montfort University's local governance research unit, has interviewed 25 EDL supporters for a research project. Only half could be described bellicose nationalists on the fringes of the far-right, he says. Others were ordinary people who had voted for all of the major parties in the past.
For many the EDL was an outlet for their dissatisfaction with the "privileges" given to minorities by governments and public sector organisations. There was also a strong sense that such groups were almost above criticism.
They might not be the angry brigade who go on marches, says Prof Copus, but it showed how the league had tapped into growing resentment felt by a relatively broad base of followers.
"In some respects it's a sign of how fractured and frightened some elements of society are," he says. "They will associate themselves with groups they wouldn't normally associate with because they are worried about what they see as a greater problem."
The EDL's Leicester division usually brings 30 to 40 supporters to a demonstration, claims Guramit. He expects up to 200 local activists in a crowd of about 3,000 when it mobilises in the city.
Simon believes the EDL will be "lucky" to get 1,000 out on to Leicester's streets.
The EDL is already struggling to carry the weight of its contradictions and conflicting agendas, some observers claim, with friction between the hooligans and the right-wing elements.
At a recent rally in Bradford, dubbed 'the big one', only 700 turned up. Marches and demos might have seen the EDL commandeer acres of newsprint, but the tactic already seems to be running out of steam.
The idea of spending two hours on a bus and being corralled into a corner of a city centre for another two hours, before getting back on the bus is rapidly losing its appeal for a lot of EDL activists, says Simon.
That doesn't mean Leicester can afford to be complacent.
"The number of arrests (on an EDL rally) doesn't really tally with the amount of disorder," he claims. "I was in Bradford and I saw what the EDL was like and what the locals were like. The police momentarily lost control. They just wanted to get the EDL in and out with the least amount of fuss possible.
"The BNP has had to adapt and portray a more moderate image. The EDL don't have to answer to anybody. They can get away with doing what they want – they don't want respectability."
In total, Matthew spent four months filming the EDL for his Guardian report, The English Defence League Uncovered. He said it had only been possible to record some of "the most alarming scenes" with a hidden camera.
He joined EDL supporters at a pub in Stoke in January for their first demonstration of the year.
"They had spent the past four hours drinking," he wrote. "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."
It will get ugly if the EDL an United Against Fascism are within shouting distance of one another, believes Simon.
"I feel sorry for the people of Leicester that they've got to put up with this in their multi-cultural city," he says. "I'd appeal for locals to stay indoors. Don't attend the counter-demonstration. Don't get involved."
If you doubt the wisdom of that then Guramit makes it crystal clear.
"We're here for peace," he says. "But we're ready for war."
See Matthew Taylor's film for the Guardian here.