Islamophobia, violence and the far right

Daniel Trilling has an interesting article in today’s Guardian. Responding to the findings in the new report From Voting to Violence? Rightwing Extremists in Modern Britain, Trilling asks: “Is Britain’s far right preparing for armed conflict? And could a catastrophe of the kind that struck Norway last summer be on its way here?” He writes:

As electoral success has melted away since the BNP’s collapse at the 2010 general election, the hardcore is now left exposed. At the same time, a younger generation has been attracted to the adrenaline-pumping street politics of the English Defence League, which adapts its language to better suit the realities of multicultural modern Britain. It claims merely to oppose “militant Islam”, but its supporters have carried out numerous violent attacks on Asian Britons, on their shops, homes and places of worship. Shut out from mainstream politics, some far-right supporters may well turn to violence, seeing it as the only way to achieve their goals. Indeed, it has happened in this country before – most recently in 1999, when David Copeland, a neo-Nazi who had drifted through the BNP, set off a series of nail bombs in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho, killing three people and maiming 129.

However, Trilling argues that the main threat from the far right is not political violence and terrorism but rather the impact of its ideas on wider society:

The greater danger remains where it always has done: in the elements of far-right propaganda that overlap with mainstream political sentiment. Few people in Britain would agree that race war is on its way, but how many would agree that immigration has gone “too far”; that multiculturalism has failed or that the west is locked in a “clash of civilisations” with Islam?

By his murderous actions in Norway last summer, Anders Breivik has become the new face of far-right terror. Yet he did not tear Norway’s society apart in the way that, say, the rhetoric of Geert Wilders threatens to do in Holland. There, his nonviolent Freedom party has been able to extract reactionary anti-Muslim concessions from the Dutch coalition government in return for support on economic policies. In France, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen has made halal meat a major issue in the presidential election, and encouraged Nicolas Sarkozy to compete with her furiously in the immigrant-bashing stakes.

I think this is a dubious argument. It is reasonable to say that warnings about the prospect of violence and terrorism from the extreme right should not distract us from the wider problem of anti-Muslim racism in society. However, organisations of the British far right do not have anything like the political weight of the Freedom Party or the Front National, nor are they likely to acquire it in the foreseeable future. When it comes to Islamophobic propaganda in the UK the influence of the BNP and EDL pales into insignificance beside that of newspapers like the Mail and the Express, and it is they who set the anti-Muslim agenda here.

Indeed, the mainstream right-wing press not only provides the far right with the political conditions in which it can grow but also with a large part of its ideology. Here, for example, is a comment by one Jordan Ellingham from the EDL’s Facebook page last May on a thread discussing the planned protest in Tower Hamlets:

Jordan Ellingham on Tower Hamlets Taliban

The “Tower Hamlets Taliban” is a reference to this article in the Daily Mail. Here we see the sort of Islamophobic propaganda that incites general hostility towards the Muslim community and its representatives, and inspires the violent response from the far right. Ellingham himself is currently on trial over an attack on Kingston mosque.

Some EDL supporters are talking openly of taking matters further. Only yesterday we posted a comment from a discussion about Enoch Powell on the EDL’s Facebook page which raised the prospect of far-right terrorist attacks on the Muslim community:

“i dont think it will be long before we get diifernt factions here probaly just like in other countrys and who knows may stat playing these fucker at there own game what other way is there perhaps we should recuit english people to bomb them for a change being civilised with these peopel obviously aint working is it and never will when they come form countrys with no rules they dont understand being civilised.”

Charles Dickie, an EDL member currently remanded in prison on a charge of threatening a Muslim taxi driver, has put it rather more succinctly:

Charles Dickie Facebook

The situation is hardly helped when you have Adrian Tudway, head of the National Domestic Extremism Unit at Scotland Yard, claiming that the EDL are “not extreme right wing as a group” and are “actively moving away from the right and violence”. Or when Norman Bettison, head of the special police unit set up to investigate extremist websites, states that there is little that can be done about EDL members’ online postings, as they are merely “inappropriate, brash or insensitive” and rarely warrant prosecution.

If things continue the way they are, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see a serious act of far-right terrorism directed against the Muslim community in the UK.