Analysis: Under the skin of Britain’s neo-nationalists

By Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens

In the aftermath of the English Defence League (EDL) rally in Manchester last Saturday, it is worth taking stock of how such an organisation has gained support, what it truly stands for and how it should be perceived within the spectrum of Europe’s far right.

It should not simply be dismissed as a racist or fascist BNP front. Instead, it is endemic to the current political climate in Europe that has seen a rise in support for populist groups that, through focusing on a perceived threat posed by Islam in Europe, present a new take on old xenophobic ideas, and have moved beyond racial and ethnic nationalisms that have lost credibility.

This ‘new’ far right as it has come to be known has shown itself adept at adopting and exploiting mainstream conservative concerns in order to push its own anti-Islam agenda, making reasoned debate about immigration, identity and radical Islam all the more difficult for those in the political centre.

At first glance, the group appears to be nothing more than a rebranded version of older right-wing extremist groups. However, it is more than just a xenophobic, far-right protest group; it is part of a wider movement within Europe which refers to itself as the ‘Counter-Jihad’, inspired in part by rabble rousing anti-Muslim bigots that have risen to prominence in post-9/11 America.

In Europe, the movement has found support across the political spectrum, though much of its leadership and following is drawn from a pool of individuals previously engaged in other forms of far-right and anti-immigration politics. It rejects racial nationalism and white supremacism, and has denounced the ideologies of traditional European far-right, fascist and racist groups. 

Many journalists and researchers who have attended EDL marches in Britain and Europe, myself included, are often surprised and confused at the (albeit small) presence of non-white minorities showing their support for the group. A video (4.30 minutes in) from the Manchester demo, for example, shows a crowd of mainly white EDL supporters applauding a young Asian man as he holds up a pro-EDL flag.

Indeed, herein lies one of the important distinctions between this new movement and previous incarnations of the European far right: the core of its ideology – namely a conspiracy-driven view of Islam in the West – is racially and culturally transcendent, and the EDL has shown a willingness to reach out to and embrace Jewish, South-Asian and black supporters.

Despite publicly rejecting the far-right ideologies of old, the movement still serves to incubate, protect and add a veneer of plausibility and acceptability to forms of far-right xenophobia and extremism. The EDL and its allies are inspired by an ideology which presents the current jihadist terrorist threat to the West as part of a centuries-long effort by Muslims to dominate Western civilisation. They point to a conspiracy to 'Islamise' Europe through the stealthy implementation of Sharia law, and hold that many of Europe’s Muslims, along with their liberal multiculturalist allies, are actively engaged in this conspiracy. The actions of Muslims in the West are viewed almost solely through this frame, and evidence of so-called 'Islamisation' is seen everywhere from the availability of halal meat, to the construction of mosques. 

Part of the EDL’s success has been down to its ability to exploit mainstream concerns. Whereas many people may be alarmed, for example, by the recent revelations about paedophile rings made up of British-Asian men in Northern England, the EDL seeks to mould this concern into a distrust of Muslims as a whole. Relying on an essentialist reading of Islam and Muslims, the EDL argues that the men who carry out these rapes are acting in accordance with their religion; Mohammed married nine-year-old Aysha, so the argument goes, therefore modern day Muslims sanction paedophilia. Sexual attacks on Western women and girls that are carried out by Muslims are therefore presented as a specifically Islamic phenomenon, characteristic of a culture that has no place in the West.

Unlike its racial-nationalist predecessors, the EDL leadership advocates a form of cultural nationalism, according to which the nation and its members are defined primarily in terms of a shared culture and history. "If people migrate to this country", argues the EDL mission statement, "then they should be expected to respect our culture, its laws, and its traditions, and not expect their own cultures to be promoted by agencies of the state."  Added to this is an aggressive integrationism that requires immigrants and any other foreigners to conform to a set of cultural and political values including, but not limited to women’s rights, human rights, freedom of speech, and democracy. According to its mission statement, the EDL is "keen to draw its support from people of all races, all faiths, all political persuasions, and all lifestyle choices", in the fight against Islam.

Many dismiss the use of such language as a crypto-fascist attempt to mislead potential supporters who might be put off by dated race-based ideologies, and the movement does specifically couch many of its activities in such liberal terms in order to counter accusations of far-right extremism. While it may be the case that the EDL leadership is hiding neo-Nazi and racist sympathies, race is simply not at the core of its message or ideology. This is not to say that the group does not attract neo-Nazis and other assorted white supremacists – its xenophobia is bound to appeal to people filled with many different types of hate and fear.

Nonetheless, if we were to take such statements at face value it may seem difficult to categorise a group positioning itself in defence of liberal enlightenment values as 'far-right' or extreme.  However, this cultural nationalism does indeed manifest itself as a form of far-right extremism both in its portrayal of all Muslims as a threat to European culture and in its proposed, highly illiberal responses to this perceived threat, such as a ban on all mosque construction and the prohibition of all Muslim immigration into Europe.

As well as inflaming communal tensions and spreading fear, mistrust and conspiracy theories, the EDL and others like it have also contributed to the poisoning of national debates about Islam in Europe, immigration and identity. It is becoming increasingly difficult to present a measured analysis of these issues without being accused of either providing ammunition to anti-Muslim bigots by one side or of pandering to some sort of far-left civilisational defeatism by the other.

The desire, as stated in the EDL mission statement, to protect and promote certain values, whether they be thought of as specifically British cultural imperatives or 'shared values', is not the preserve of the far right, and nor should we allow it to be.

Since the 7 July 2005 London bombings, which were carried out by British-born Muslims, a debate has been ongoing within mainstream European politics about how to ensure that European citizens are never again driven to attack their own countries in the name of global jihad.

In Britain, this was enough of a concern to inspire Labour’s then chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown (who is not exactly a paragon of far-right xenophobia), to write a paper in 2007 entitled “The Governance of Britain”, in which he argued that, unlike France and America, "there is a less clear sense among British citizens of the values that bind the groups and communities who make up the body of the British people."

Liberal principles such as free speech and pluralism were not well enough articulated, argued Brown, who wished to see a more robust definition of what it meant to be British. Brown also wrote that a clearer understanding of British culture and identity must be accompanied by "a set of values which have not just to be shared but also accepted." While he wanted to see all identities and cultures celebrated and respected, he warned that "none of these identities should take precedence over the core democratic values that define what it means to be British." "A British citizen," he concluded, "must act in accordance with these values."

When compared with the EDL mission statement, although the intentions differ, the similarities between the two are nonetheless striking.

As well as simply a continuation of old-fashioned far-right xenophobia, the EDL is a product of debates and discussions that have gripped Europe over the past decade surrounding terrorism, Islam, identity and cultural assimilation.  The inevitable focus on Muslims that has ensued has provided fertile ground for Europe’s right wing extremists, who have identified a new ‘enemy within’ at whose feet they can lay the blame for all of the economic, social and security problems faced by their countries.

In devising a response to this, policy makers and commentators alike should take care not to allow extremists of any stripe to dictate the terms of these very important debates.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is head of research at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College, London where he is also a PhD candidate. He is co-author of the forthcoming ICSR publication “A Neo-Nationalist Network: The English Defence League and Europe’s Counter-Jihad Movement”.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.