Inside the English Defence League
Photo: Girish Gupta

Inside the English Defence League

| Nov. 11, 2009 | Manchester, England

Published by Student Direct: Mancunion

Photo: Girish Gupta

“If anyone from the National Front or the British National Party comes along to our next protest, we’re just gonna beat them up. We’ll do this in full view of the police and the cameras,” Tommy Robinson told me. “A guy came to the Birmingham demonstration and did a Nazi salute; we kicked his head in,” he continued, angry at the links being made between his English Defence League and the long-established parties of the British far-right.

Robinson set up the English Defence League just a few months ago in his hometown of Luton. After protests against returning soldiers by an Islamic extremist group, United People of Luton (UPL) was set up to fight the “Luton Taliban”.

“The UPL decided that this isn’t a local issue,” says Robinson. This spurred on the formation of the EDL, an apolitical group which has a sole platform, to rally against extremist Islam.

The group has since held protests in Birmingham, London, Manchester and most recently Leeds, which saw the biggest turn out of nearly three thousand, with hundreds of police drafted in from neighbouring forces.

Rival protests from Unite Against Fascism (UAF) have always secured a larger turnout. However, the EDL claims not to have anything to do with fascism, racism or the Islamophobia it is often labelled with. “I wouldn’t allow National Front guys to put up posters against blacks and Asians,” said Robinson. “If the NF set up a stall in my hometown, I’d be just as angry as if Islamic-extremists did.”

Despite the presence of many BNP and NF members at the EDL’s demonstrations, there is clearly animosity between those groups and Robinson’s EDL. The BNP’s press officer Simon Darby gave a very curt response when I asked him about his organisation’s thoughts on the EDL’s policies: “We have nothing to do with the EDL. They have no policies.”

A message on the notorious white-supremacist internet forum, Stormfront—set up by an ex-Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon—says: “[The EDL’s] very name is an affront to true Englishmen. I feel so bitter about this … pro-black motley crew.”

Photo: Girish Gupta

“They hate us, and rightly so,” Robinson says. “From day one, we hated the NF and BNP. The BNP are only for white British people. How can that represent Britain?”

Robinson does welcome members of the BNP who he feels only joined because there was no group supporting their thoughts against extremist Islam. “Obviously people feel they have no voice. There’s no one representing our community. Now they can have a voice without being BNP.”

The figure of Tommy Robinson is an enigmatic one, evidently by design rather than necessity. The name is a pseudonym. Tommy Robinson was a notorious ringleader of Luton’s Men in Gear (MIG) crew of football hooligans—the choice of name perhaps demonstrating the EDL’s roots being slightly more violent than Robinson portrays. Curiously, there is more than one Tommy Robinson; six of them frequently speak to the media as a leader of the EDL.

Asked why the lack of clarity in the upper echelons of the organisation, our Tommy Robinson—the main one, he claims—talks about the security risk to him and the group. Indeed, I would have preferred to have conducted the interview in person but this was a definite no—the only journalists allowed to being from BBC’s Newsnight. They showed a chilling balaclava-clad group of men, led by Robinson—this one—setting fire to a swastika, again to demonstrate the lack of any link to the far-right.

“It would be like moderate Muslims burning an al-Quaeda flag,” Robinson tells me. “It’s up to moderate Muslims to oust the extremists in their community. It’s not for me as a non-Muslim to decide what the form of British Islam should be,” he continues. “When I start talking about it, I’m treading dangerous ground.

“The problem’s getting worse and worse. They’re avoiding the argument by calling us racist. They’re avoiding getting into a debate and discussing the issue; these are issues that are needed for the future to be a peaceful and pleasant one.”

I suggest to Robinson that in asking moderate Muslims to oust the extremes of their own community, he needs to do the same with the EDL. “We have,” he says, clearly unhappy that the EDL are not succeeding. At the Leeds protest I overheard police talking of the presence of known NF and BNP trouble-makers. Like many journalists, I was assaulted both physically and verbally by demonstrators. But this seems a far cry from the EDL that Robinson sees, possibly through rose-tinted glasses.

Photo: Girish Gupta

I had conducted my interview in two parts. The second nearly didn’t happen as Robinson refused to return my calls or texts for a couple of days. It turned out he was being held by the police on charges relating to tax evasion. Robinson is a 28-year-old carpenter who admits to having earned money cash-in-hand “like anyone else”. He had found bugs in his home, his car, everywhere, he claimed.

“They’re just screwing me on anything they can,” Robinson claimed. “This is clearly because of EDL. Some fucking democracy we’re in.” Now on bail, he was able to continue our chat.

Robinson is not interested in politics. “We just want to ring some alarm bells—make them ring in houses and government offices.” He believes that the government has failed in its quest to integrate the Muslim community. “It’s gone from one extreme to the other,” Robinson says, talking of a swing between hatred towards Muslims and the current trend in pandering to the Islamic community.

“Our spineless government just bows to Muslims. They were victimised,” Robinson continues. “The government has tried to appease them but it’s gone too far the other way.”

Robinson is the son of Irish immigrants himself. He speaks of the shop-window signs bellowing the now infamous, “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish,” he claims his parents suffered when they came to this country. “Half my friends are black; lots are Asian though none are Jewish,” he offers. “But there’s still a barrier even when you’re friends. I can understand them being fearful of coming to our protests.”

Robinson is keen to get moderate Muslims on board. “I’ve said to my Muslim friends, ‘Come to our protests; stand at my side all day.’” I saw one Asian EDL demonstrator in Leeds. He was at the heart of the action, no doubt egged on by the likes of Robinson to demonstrate the group’s lack of racist policy.

National Secretary of the UAF Weyman Bennett told me that he believed that the EDL existed solely to ‘stir up racial hatred’. “They label all Muslims as extremists or terrorists,” he said. On the insistence of Robinson that NF and BNP present at protests would be beaten up, Bennett said: “They said this about Swansea. They said this about Manchester and Leeds. They didn't do it there.

“Let’s be clear about it, the EDL is a group that wants to intimidate people on the basis of religion,” Bennett continues.

"From my perspective, I would not have any qualms in considering the EDL to be a far-right organisation," says Matthew Goodwin, an expert on the far-right at the University of Manchester. "If you consider the EDL as a single-issue movement, against militant Islam, then that's fine. However, when you listen to their members talking about how they conceive Sharia law, they're talking about Muslims, generally."

I asked Robinson about mosques. At least one EDL placard asked for no more mosques to be built. “I don’t see it as a problem that mosques are coming up,” he said. However, there was a link between mosques and fundamentalist Islam, he claimed. “Until the problem of extremist Islam … is tackled, then maybe we should stop building mosques. Until the problem is dealt with, the more mosques we’ve got, the bigger the problem.”

Robinson is on a mission. He firmly believes his main aim is to rid the EDL of its extremes and get people to see them as an acceptable organisation. His methods of doing this—‘kicking their heads in’—will never succeed in achieving this goal. The EDL’s policies may seem legitimate. However, their links with the far-right—whether sought or not—will never allow this legitimacy to be seen.