English Defence League ‘not racist, just xenophobic’

By Tony Hudson

What you think you know about the English Defence League (EDL) is wrong, according to a report out today.

Research from the Chatham House think-tank found common perceptions of right-wing extremist groups like the EDL do not accurately represent the reality of their members.

The commonly held belief that EDL supporters are young, uneducated, working class, unemployed and overtly racist was found to be inaccurate by a case study examining the attitudes and backgrounds of people who claimed to know who the EDL is and agree with their beliefs.

"The counter-jihad challenge is under-researched and poorly understood. These groups are different from the traditional far right in important ways", said Dr Matthew Goodwin, author of the report.

The report showed a very small number of EDL supporters – just three per cent – were unemployed and fewer than one in ten held no qualifications whatsoever.

It showed the idea the EDL appeals mostly to a younger audience is false. Most of the people surveyed who expressed support for them were over 44 years old.

Despite what most media coverage would suggest, the report emphasises EDL supporters do not conform to ideas of overt, or 'biological', racism and actually distance themselves from this staple of the old right-wing extremist ideology.

What the EDL do exhibit, according to the report, is xenophobia. Quite different from racism, the focus of their anger is focused on what they perceive to be politicians prioritising the needs of immigrants over those of native-born Brits.

The report also revealed other worrying aspects of the EDL supporters' thinking, with a staggering majority claiming violence between different ethnic or religious groups was justified, and there is a fundamental 'clash of civilisations' between Islam and the west.

EDL supporters are not politically apathetic – they are actually more likely than their fellow citizens to have voted in the last election – as much as they harbour an intense distrust of parliament, the party system and journalists, the research found.

The rapid pace at which groups like the EDL grow was also raised as a concern. Goodwin called for more effective policy responses to EDL and similarly extreme 'counter-jihad' groups around the world.

"In only a short time, the English Defence League went from an isolated protest to rallying over 80,000 Facebook followers and mounting a serious and costly challenge to public order", he added.