Comment: Centre-right columnists are legitimising the EDL

By Matthew Feldman

It is less than a month since Drummer Lee Rigby was killed in Woolwich and already alarm bells are ringing after a number of articles which seem to be attempting to close down debate on anti-Muslim prejudice in Britain. Charles Moore's article in The Telegraph on Saturday  ('Woolwich outrage: we are too weak to face up to the extremism in our midst') appeared to follow this route and comes cold on the heels of two other articles here and here earlier this month by Andrew Gilligan, also published in The Telegraph.

The Tell MAMA project – set up to record anti-Muslim attacks – and especially its director, Fiyaz Mughal, have come in for particularly severe criticism. Above all, the suggestion seems to be that groups like his, Faith Matters, pander to Islamist extremism while inflating the issue of 'Islamophobia' unjustly. Being familiar with some of the data from the Tell MAMA project, I want to comment on several assumptions in Mr Moore's misguided piece.

First of all, as we will emphasise in a forthcoming conference for the launch of the Centre for Fascist, Anti-fascist and Post-fascist studies at Teesside University – scores of very troubling reports have been received during the Tell MAMA project's 18-month lifetime. While it has worked with relevant academics and key partners like the Community Security Trust (long responsible for recording anti-Semitic attacks in Britain), the short life-cycle of Tell MAMA to-date plus the nature of self-reporting data of this kind poses genuine limitations in data collection. Just as some attacks are more violent than others – not least the obvious distinction between physical and online attacks (which can nevertheless be quite aggressive) – some entries are more extensive in providing information on location, number of alleged perpetrators, or the nature of the attack.

Self-reported data is invariably imperfect – and in some cases, it can be quite challenging. Yet it is also extremely important and can be highly revealing. Long-needed endeavours like Tell MAMA therefore need help and support in order to earn community trust, and to refine methodological approaches and data collection capabilities – not simply have their work dismissed or rejected. Indeed, one important trend in the Tell MAMA data helps to underscore its wider importance: a large proportion of anti-Muslim attacks seem to derive from far-right activists or groups. In turn, this reinforces what academics from different areas and different specialisms are collectively finding: the wholesale embrace of anti-Muslim politics and propaganda by the contemporary far right in Britain.

That is what makes Charles Moore's suggested equivocation of Mughal and the English Defence League so obnoxious. He says: "Notice that many bigwigs in Muslim groups are decorated with public honours. Fiyaz Mughal, for example, who runs Tell Mamma [sic], has an OBE. Obviously it would be half-laughable, half-disgusting, if activists of the EDL [English Defence League] were indulged in this way; yet they are, in fact, less extreme than some of those Muslims who are."

The problem is not Mughal, who works tirelessly to bring together different communities – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – in celebrating shared British values, including the rejection of political extremism, from whichever quarter it arises. Mughal's work on social cohesion in Britain should be applauded, not denigrated. Nor should this work be equated with a movement that thrives on community tension, as I wrote two years ago in the introduction to The EDL: Britain's 'new far right' social movement.

"The English Defence League has brought disorder, violence and racism in its wake. It has stretched police budgets and strained cohesion amongst, and between, British communities. Despite claiming that it opposes jihadi Islamism – like, of course, all right thinking people – the EDL's rhetoric quickly turns into anti-Muslim prejudice, whether at demonstrations, online or, increasingly, in court."

That remains the case now and, helpfully, the police and other agencies are much more willing to consider the EDL a far-right group than in the initial period of street protests in 2009 and 2010.

Despite this academic and practitioner convergence of views on the EDL, it seems Moore never got the message. Instead, he's happier to repeat the tired, unchallenged line that the EDL is merely an "instinctive reaction of elements of an indigenous working class which rightly perceives itself marginalised by authority". This lets off their inflammatory presence online, and on Britain’s streets, much too lightly. Nor should working class people free of prejudice thank Moore for his generalisations. 

It is partly this irresponsible legitimising of far-right groups that the Tell MAMA project was established to challenge. For the tide of this 'mainstreaming' of prejudice is indeed rising. A good, or rather lamentable, example of this trend can be found in a spate of interviews with EDL leader 'Tommy Robinson' (real name: Stephen Yaxley), who has convictions for violence as well as fraud. When his voice is unopposed, as it was in a 15-minute segment for Fox News last week (which predictably warned of a 'silent takeover' by British Muslims) the danger of 'mainstreaming' prejudice against Muslims is magnified. Imagine if Tommy Robinson was talking about black or Jewish people in this way. Apparently this never occurred to news host Brian Kilmeade, who concluded the Fox interview by stating: "Well Tommy, we got your back, and we'll definitely look to keep in touch and I really think it's a very – it's great what you're doing."

The EDL are wolves in wolves' clothing. They should be treated as such, particularly by the mainstream media. Instead of attacking those trying to help. journalists like Moore ought to think about how to be part of the solution.

This broaches his final assumption from his article: that somehow discussion of anti-Muslim prejudice occludes the utterly appalling murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. It has not, and it cannot. Everyone I have spoken to – in both Muslim and non-Muslim communities – agrees that Drummer Rigby's murder was so barbaric and shocking as to be a 'game changer' for preventing violent extremism.

All of our communities need to come together to recognise this and to condemn extremism from wherever it arises: whether from Muslim extremists or EDL arsonists. To this end, Moore and others should note that Fiyaz Mughal is organising a discussion on June 27th with a recently-formed consortium of academics, journalists and charities dedicated to addressing difficult issues of social cohesion. Rather than condemning out-of-hand the efforts of those seeking a peaceful path forward, perhaps Moore might consider participating in the debate he mistakenly believes is "half-forgotten": Woolwich and Beyond: Future action on social cohesion, the role of the British State and Muslim communities.

Matthew Feldman is a reader in contemporary history at Teesside University, a senior research fellow at the University of Bergen, Norway, and a senior researcher with the Cantemir Institute, University of Oxford. He is co-director of the soon to be launched Centre for Fascist, Anti-fascist and Post-fascist studies at Teesside University. Follow him on Twitter.

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