The English Defence League: Not suited but booted

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This summer saw a sinister new development on the far right of British politics.

Groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) have started to take to the streets, organising anti-Muslim "demonstrations" in towns and cities such as Birmingham, Luton and Harrow.

Anti-fascists have responded by mobilising against the EDL, often at very short notice. In Birmingham thousands mobilised on two occasions to chase them out of town. And in Harrow last month some 2,000 people, of all ages and backgrounds, turned out to defend the local mosque from a protest planned by the EDL and an organisation called "Stop the Islamisation of Europe".

Formally the EDL and the British National Party (BNP) deny any links with each other, with the BNP even going so far as to issue a statement declaring the EDL a "proscribed organisation". But at least one key EDL organiser, Chris Renton, is a known BNP activist whose name appears on the BNP membership list leaked last year. EDL supporters have been photographed and filmed making Nazi "Sieg heil" salutes and chanting disgusting racist slogans in Birmingham.

Little wonder that John Denham, the government's communities secretary, drew a parallel between the EDL today and the British Union of Fascists (BUF) of the 1930s, who attacked Jews and marched on synagogues. This is just one of many parallels between historical anti-Semitism and contemporary Islamophobia.

The emergence of the EDL has created a headache for the ideologues who have been busy peddling anti-Muslim vitriol for the past few years. David Blackburn and Martin Bright, journalists on the right wing Spectator magazine, angrily denounced Denham for comparing the EDL to the BUF.

Over at the neoconservative Standpoint magazine, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens complained that the EDL's hooliganism gives "ammunition" to those who suspect that "all anti-Islamists are racists at heart", while loudly declaring that he didn't need their "help" in combating the Muslim menace.

The EDL's gamble was that by focusing its hatred against "Muslim extremism", it could avoid the opprobrium that an overtly fascist programme of street thuggery would attract. This gamble looks like it has failed.

A key reason for that failure has been the reactivation of a tradition of anti-fascist mobilisation that runs deep in the working class, a tradition in which Unite Against Fascism proudly stands. Anyone who was outside the Harrow mosque last month will have been struck by a "spirit of 1977", with working class Muslim youths instinctively recognising the socialist left as their friends and allies in the fight against racism.

In one sense, the fact that racist groups such as the EDL have taken to the streets with an explicitly anti-Muslim agenda has clarified what is at stake. Arguments about the nature of Islamophobia that had until now been primarily ideological are now being played out on the streets.

And in a small but significant number of cases, individuals and organisations that had been reluctant to accept the idea that criticism of Islam was acting as a cover for racism are nevertheless prepared to mobilise against the EDL in solidarity with Muslims.

The left needs to take note of these shifts and learn from them. The "war on terror" opened the door to Islamophobia by making it an "acceptable" form of bigotry. But it is now manifesting itself as a much more recognisable form - as anti-Muslim race hate on our streets, whipped up by the fascist right.

Over the coming months we need to extend and cement these alliances against racism that are forming between young Muslims, the left and Britain's multiracial and multicultural working class.

The factors fuelling the EDL's rise - racism and the recession - won't go away in a hurry. But if our side gets it right, as we have done in the past, we can still ensure that the EDL will be stillborn.


Anindya Bhattacharyya is an activist with Unite Against Fascism.