The EDL fails to attract support, but anti-Muslim sentiment remains widespread

Dominic Ashton reports on last weekend's English Defence League rally in Tower Hamlets.

Dominic Ashton reports on last weekend’s English Defence League rally in Tower Hamlets

Last weekend’s English Defence League rally, though garnering a significant amount of media attention, reportedly attracted an unimpressive 600 participants, who were handily outnumbered by rival protestors.

This has prompted some onlookers to question why the left occupies itself with such a small, insignificant group and others to laud the superior turnout of opposition rallies as a sign that the EDL’s flavour of prejudice is receding.

Yet triumphalist conclusions, when viewed from a broader perspective, may be premature.

Whilst true that preoccupation with the EDL flatters their rather modest levels of support, the group’s lack of success does not efface the need for constructive debate on the arguments they speak to. What hinders the EDL, in common with many attempted far-right incursions in recent memory, is not an infertile breeding ground for their ideology, but what Tommy Robinson, displaying a rarely deployed capacity for understatement, once described as “a bit of an image problem”.

Not often accused of knowing too much, Robinson is at least accurate on this point- with 84 per cent of those who are aware of the EDL professing that they would never join the group and only 6 per cent (down slightly in the wake of reprisals for the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich) willing to consider joining the organisation.

Scenes from the rally- featuring a keynote speech from Robinson which merged, as best it could, disparate themes of unfair treatment at the hands of the authorities, opposition to military action in Syria, the transgressions of Muslim grooming gangs, female genital mutilation and supposed Muslim controlled ‘no-go’ areas – are unlikely to persuade public opinion to the contrary.

Whilst the EDL has from its inception attempted to co-opt the language of human rights, even having the temerity to pose as a champion of women’s rights on occasion, its appeals to be taken seriously are seldom answered. Even it’s mission statement – which is carefully worded to present the organization in a benign light – lapses into identitarian politics as it asserts the importance of “respecting tradition” and insists that “the onus should always be on foreign cultures to adapt and integrate”.

‘Cultures’ – conceived as obstinate, ossified entities – are the arbitrarily defined groups creating the spark of conflict by the EDL’s account. Broadly adapting Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis has become something of a hallmark for the modern far-right.

These portents may be ominous, but the thin barrier between central leadership and ordinary members makes the group’s challenge of winning support even more unlikely.

Unsavoury elements can easily join through the porous mechanisms of social media and lend their unphotogenic presence to public gathering without formal subscription. The cruder biological racism and associations with street violence that these members entail are enough to further dispel any notion that the EDL can successfully mobilise potential sympathisers who manage to overlook the controversies surrounding the leadership itself.

Yet complete complacency over the EDL’s platform risks conflating message and messenger: anti-immigrant sentiment and in particular anti-Muslim attitudes have remained at steadily high levels in spite of the EDL’s inability to capitalise on it. Statistical confirmation can be found in the British Social Attitudes survey, which concluded that “no other group elicits so much disquiet” among the British population.

Even more starkly, hate crime statistics indicate the effects of this prejudice in its more active form: 50-60 per cent of recorded anti-religious hate crime estimated to be directed against Muslims.

The discrepancy between potential and realised support for far-right movements is redolent of the UK’s encounters with the far-right in its more familiar electoral guise; the repeated poor performance of which is derived not from any exceptional cultural insulation from European trends, but from the lack of sophistication, and general incompetence, of our respective far-right parties.

The EDL has proven so far to be the social movement inheritor of this unsuccessful legacy. It is unclear what effect the street-based anti-fascist demonstrators have had in hampering their efforts, but it has to be noted that question marks remain over Unite Against Fascism, who have been accused of harbouring extremists of a different stripe.

Whilst it may be too trite and reductive to say that UAF are as bad as the EDL, the increasingly mutually dependent relationship of Islamist and far-right extremists should make selective opposition to extremism increasingly untenable. Nonetheless, the accumulated opposition to the EDL did ensure a sense of numerical embarrassment for the anti-Muslim group.

The unsolved attitudinal drivers of far-right sympathisers remain, however, and so the ideas that fuel the EDL’s marginal street presence are still obstinately active among the wider population.

The weekend’s skirmish may be seen as a defeat for the organised far-right on the streets, but the task of convincing a sceptical population of the benefits of immigration – particularly by engaging in the more difficult cultural, as well as economic, arguments – will have to be taken up elsewhere.

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