EDL: Not racist, not violent, just no longer silent?

23/01/2014  -  2.54

Dr George Kassemeris

EDL: Not racist, not violent, just no longer silent?

The English Defence League (EDL) emerged in 2009 as a mass street protest movement able to attract supporters in the thousands to demonstrate against ‘Islamic extremism’ in towns and cities across the UK. Often descending into violent confrontation with local Asians, police, and counter-protesters, more than 600 arrests have been made in connection with EDL protest and the cost of policing demonstrations is estimated to be in excess of £10 million. When leader Tommy Robinson announced his defection in October 2013, the EDL’s disintegration appeared imminent, however the group has maintained momentum, sustaining a large and active social media following and continuing to hold protests.

From the beginning there has been a tension between the violence and intimidation of protests and the apparently ‘rational Islamophobia’ espoused by the movement’s leadership on its website. Robinson reportedly left the group because he was spending too much time keeping ‘goose stepping white pride morons’ away from demonstrations, and the EDL have claimed from the start that they are ‘not racist, not violent, just no longer silent’. The regularly reported racist chanting at protests is explained as the work of agent provocateurs or extreme right elements intent on derailing the movement’s legitimate aims: to preserve free speech against encroaching ‘Islamic extremism’.

These claims have been dismissed by opponents of the group, such as Unite Against Fascism (UAF), who assert that the EDL is merely another far-right outfit using the ‘march and grow’ strategies of the past and capitalising on the vacuum created by the British National Party’s (BNP) loss of influence and legitimacy. Yet, dismissing the movement as merely racist or fascist fails to take into account the consistent anti-racist position put forward on the EDL website, as well as the specialist ‘divisions’ within the EDL (including Jewish, Sikh, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender divisions).

There are significant differences between the EDL and the traditional far-right. Both groups focus on Islam as a central danger threatening Britain, yet for the BNP Muslims are merely a particular symptom of the wider problem of immigration and multiculturalism, while the EDL have no qualms with non-Muslim ethnic minorities. The successful integration of other minorities in Britain is in fact held up as evidence of just how problematic Muslims are. Additionally, though high profile EDL figures have had past BNP connections (including Robinson), it is a disciplinary offence for any BNP member to attend EDL events, while the unswerving rejection of BNP advances is considered a point of pride for the EDL.

One reason the EDL has been considered a manifestation of the far-right is that concentration has centred on the attitudes of supporters, rather than the official ideological position of the movement itself, presented on the EDL News section of its website. By representing Muslims as uniquely problematic within Britain, explaining this behaviour as the product of ‘Islamic ideology’, and demanding nothing less than total reform of the religion, EDL discourse served to construct opposing ‘British’ and ‘Muslim’ subjects. It is in this formation of binary opposite subjects that the real character of EDL writing on Muslims can be best understood as precisely what it claims not to be: racist discourse.

Racist discourse construction involves the creation of an in-group and an out-group, where the in-group considers itself superior and claims the right to decide who can belong, and the out-group is represented as threatening its privileges and position. EDL discourse performed this function by racialising Muslim culture as the source of Muslim behaviour and conferring the role of arbiters of acceptability to culturally superior non-Muslims.

Rhetorical strategies typical of racist discourse abound in EDL writing on Muslims. Positive-self and negative-other representations served to represent the successful integration of non-Muslim minority groups as an account of British hospitality, while Muslims were presented as making unreasonable demands that exceeded the cultural tolerance of the nation. Projection strategies viewed mosques as symbolic of Muslim desire to dominate, and increasingly available halal meat as evidence of the ‘creeping Islamification’ of Britain. This projection of culturally racist motivation on to Muslims (believed to be expressions of ‘Islamic supremacism’) fed into a narrative of white victimhood in which EDL counter-mobilisation was formulated as a fight for equal treatment. Through denials (the dismissal of Islamophobia as the paranoid fantasies of Muslim who should be concentrating on extremism instead of remonstrating about discrimination) the group was able to present its views on Muslims as reflecting external reality rather than internal psychology. The EDL’s preoccupation with Muslims was thus presented as a natural reaction to their negative behaviour; a victim blaming approach that held Muslims responsible for anti-Muslim sentiment.

Racist discourse uses such strategies to present speakers or writers as within the boundaries of acceptable talk about minorities, and EDL discourse on Muslims is no exception. Because Muslims were represented by the EDL as intrinsically and inescapably not-British, the EDL were able to present British identity and values as superior. EDL Islamophobia worked on the one hand to preserve traditional ethno-cultural dominance and privilege, and on the other to contain challenges to this dominance, believed to stem primarily from Muslim communities.

Clearly it is not sufficient to simply dismiss the EDL as racist. The movement is not merely another manifestation of the far-right, but a single issue group that specifically targets Muslims as inassimilable ‘others’ in Britain. In focusing its gaze on Muslims the EDL attempts to lay claim to liberal legitimacy, through a ‘rational Islamophobia’ that has wide currency. Attempts to have the group proscribed as extremist have failed precisely because it is not particularly ‘extreme’ to hold such views—they are articulated every day in newspapers, by government ministers and by think-tank intellectuals who all converge around the same theme: that Muslims in Britain are dangerous. Understanding the rhetorical strategies used by the EDL helps us to understand the way that Islamophobia functions as racist discourse, and should alert us to the dangers of the entrenched societal Islamophobia that makes such a movement possible.

Dr George Kassemeris

This piece was written with the assistance of Leonie Jackson, a PhD student at Wolverhampton University. 

A longer version of this piece is forthcoming in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations.