Thursday, 25 March 2010
It's been almost a week now since the clashes between English Defence League (EDL) and United Against Fascism (UAF) protesters in Bolton, UK. I tried to refrain from commenting earlier until I had a clearer idea and a more chilled response to the violence that occurred so close to "home" for me. At the end, I decided to dedicate my commentary on a historical overview of the rise of right-wing, anti-immigrant fascism-in-the-making in England in an attempt to place the UK on the map of "rising fascisms" Europe-wide.
The one year old EDL has, since its foundation, claimed to be a grass roots social movement representing "every walk of life, every race, every creed and every colour; from the working class to middle England" - a movement that represents the United Kingdom's "culturally rich, patriotic and nation-loving populace" according to the EDL website. For EDL ideologues, "the threat of Islamism" threatens to subjugate the United Kingdom to "a vile and virulent ideology based on 7th century barbarity, intolerance, hatred, subjugation and war", a position upheld by its ideologues are they repeatedly quote the Koran.
The movement defines "English-ness" in contrast to the perceived Islamisation of Britain and Europe. According to the EDL, which professes "respect for Muslims' right to practice their religion", that right must not "infringe on our culture, our way of life, our rule of law and our customs." Perhaps very reminiscent to a European trend which is swimming against the currents of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism.
The confrontation between EDL-minded politicians and social movements emerged in response to the March 2009 protest against the Royal Anglican Regiment troops returning from the war in Afghanistan. Luton, to which the regiment's return witnessed a protest organised by the extremist Islamist Al-Muhajiroun and Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah triggering the birth of the "United Peoples of Luton" from which the EDL originated.
EDL however caught observers' attention due to its links to the British National Party (BNP), a far-right political party formed as a splinter group from the National Front by John Tyndall in 1982. The slogan under which the BNP operates remains "Standing up for Great Britain". For the BNP, "the British peoples are embroiled in a long term cultural war being waged by a ruling regime which has abandoned the concept of Britain in pursuit of globalisation (BNP Manifesto, 2005).
Although unpopular and lacking a seat in parliament, the BNP's electoral performance has increased steadily - first doubling their seats in English local elections in 2006, then finishing 5th in the London Mayoral Elections in 2008 and finally (and most alarmingly), winning their first county seat in 2009 along with two seats in the European Parliament.
The BNP wasn't the only far-right party to gain seats in the European Parliament in the 2009 elections - perhaps indicating rising right-wing tendencies and fascist inclinations in European politics. Ironically, the rising power of far-right Euro-parliamentarians have developed into a Euro-sceptic lobby from within the very institutions of the EU.
The election of two BNP representatives triggered the birth of a counter-BNP campaign under the name "Hope not Hate".
Anyhow, back to the EDL whose agenda has been to protest time and again to "raise public awareness" and rally people against the perceived threats of Islamism, Shariah and their adverse effect on British-ness.
March 2010, for the EDL, features three major events. The first of these events was the 5 March protest in London expressing support with right-wing Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders. Wilders is a self-professed right-wing "libertarian" known for his anti-immigrant and anti-Islam positions. Wilders rose to prominence in the debate on immigrant rights and islamophobia since his comments on "not hating Muslims, but hating Islam"and his calls to "outlaw the Koran like Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf" in 2008. His film, Fitna, caused a major controversy in Wetsern Europe and revived the long debate on freedom of expression versus hate speech, inciting violence and exclusion of immigrant communities. Wilders was banned from entering the UK in February 2009 and labelled "persona non-grata" by decree of British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith.
The other major event planned by the EDL this month was the Bolton protest - originally planned for March 6, the protest was postponed to March 20 to avoid coinciding with the Hindu festival, Holi.
The choice of Bolton is itself a significant one. Bolton is one of the more deprived boroughs in the UK lying in the industrial northwest of England within the boundaries of Greater Manchester and home to around 262,400 people. Although 87% of the Bolton population is born in Bolton, 9% are born outside of the UK. Racially, Bolton in 81.6% "White", 15.8% "Asian" and 1% "Black". Bolton is also home to a large Muslim constituency amounting to 12.5% of the population whereas 3.4% identify as Hindu.
In response to the 2000 person EDL protest in Bolton's main square, Victoria Square, UAF rallied 1500 of its supporters in a counter-protest. The EDL had stated their intention to hold the demonstration in protest against "radical Muslims" and in opposition to Sharia Law. The UAF, on the other hand, rallied waving placards and chanting slogans such as:"Fascist scum off our streets", had opted to demonstrate against this stance [read more].
Perhaps naturally, EDL protesters and UAF counter-protesters clashed in violent clashes which were contained by a large 1300 person-strong police force wearing riot gear and using dogs and helicopters. According to BBC News, the leader of Bolton Council, the Bishop of Bolton and representatives from the Council of Mosques and the Hindu Forum wrote to Alan Johnson earlier this week asking for him to ban the demonstration. Johnson told them it was not in his power to stop a protest.
The clashes brought social and economic life in Bolton to a halt, caused many shops and pubs closed in the area and most taxi firms pulled their drivers off the roads for fear of violence and brought about "an estimated cost of £300,000 to the taxpayer" according to the Bolton News. Many were arrested and Bolton Police promised to use CCTV footage to identify perpetrators of violence and bring them to justice.
For now, calm has been resumed in Bolton, but both the EDL and the UAF have plans in the near future. The UAF celebrates the "outnumbering and outlasting of the EDL in Bolton" while the EDL considered the Bolton protest "another victory for freedom". The UAF is organising anti-BNP events in Stoke-on-Trent on March 28 while the EDL is protesting in Copenhagen on March 27 against "the Islamisation of Europe" (SIOE) after having held a public meeting in Bristol today against what they called "fascism and attitudes against freedom of expression".
The "Bolton Battle" might to be over, but the war between the "nation-loving people who can see the threat of Islamism and Islamic Imperialism" and those who "celebrate a modern, multicultural and globalised Britain" is far from over. The battle between the two trends is also far from a uniquely British phenomenon - many Western European and North American countries face similar confrontations between those driven by a "modernist" view of the nation and the state on the one hand, and those driven by a "post-modern", globalised and cosmopolitan view of the world.