EDL braced to march in Bristol - but what is the English Defence League?
An MP has called for a march through Bristol by the English Defence League (EDL) to be banned.
Bristol East Labour MP Kerry McCarthy has called for the EDL to be barred from marching that day, saying she fears for public safety.
The controversial protest group will congregate in Castle Park on July 14, the same day as Bristol Pride's We Are: Proud lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender event takes place on College Green.
The English Defence League is a protest group which since its establishment in 2009 has campaigned against what it calls “Islamic Extremism, Islamism and our governments spineless inability to address the issues”.
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The think-tank Demos estimates the total size of the active membership to be at least 25,000– 35,000 people. Of these, around half have been involved in demonstrations and/or marches, it found. The highest concentration of supporters is to be found around London, says Demos.
In its mission statement on its website, the EDL calls itself “a human rights organisation that was founded in the wake of the shocking actions of a small group of Muslim extremists who, at a homecoming parade in Luton, openly mocked the sacrifices of our service personnel without any fear of censure.”
It claims to be fighting back against “religiously-inspired intolerance and barbarity that are thriving amongst certain sections of the Muslim population in Britain: including, but not limited to, the denigration and oppression of women, the molestation of young children, the committing of so-called honour killings, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and continued support for those responsible for terrorist atrocities.”
The EDL’s mission statement says “we must always protect against the unjust assumption that all Muslims are complicit in or somehow responsible for these crimes”, but argues “we must not be afraid to speak freely about these issues. This is why the EDL will continue to work to protect the inalienable rights of all people to protest against radical Islam’s encroachment into the lives of non-Muslims.”
The group claims to also “recognise that Muslims themselves are frequently the main victims of some Islamic traditions and practices.” Subsequently it says “the Government should protect the individual human rights of members of British Muslims.
“It should ensure that they can openly criticise Islamic orthodoxy, challenge Islamic leaders without fear of retribution, receive full equality before the law (including equal rights for Muslim women), and leave Islam if they see fit, without fear of censure.”
An online presence
The EDL has 32,941 ‘Likes’ on Facebook, and 4,558 followers on Twitter.
In November 2011 Demos undertook the first ever large-scale empirical study of the EDL, which comprises responses from 1,295 sympathisers and supporters, and includes data on their demographics, involvement in EDL activity, political attitudes and social views.
According to Demos, the EDL is “the biggest populist street movement in a generation. Yet the make-up of the group and what its members believe remain a mystery because it has no formal joining procedures or membership list, and much of its activity takes place online.”
The think-tank found that the police and other groups have “often struggled to gauge the scale of threat posed by the EDL, because it is difficult to estimate the relationship between the group’s online membership and its active core of street protesters.”
It concluded that although the EDL is usually understood as an anti-Islamic or anti-Islamist demonstrating group, the reality is more complex.
The Demos study found EDL supporters “are characterised by intense pessimism about the UK's future, worries about immigration and joblessness. This is often mixed with a proactive pride in Britain, British history and British values, which they see as being under attack from Islam.”
The study found that “although the group’s leaders claim Islamic extremism is the EDL’s primary raison d’etre, supporters appear to care more about immigration: 42 per cent consider immigration one of the top two issues facing the country, with 31 per cent citing Islamic extremism.”
Some 41 per cent of supporters claimed to have joined the EDL because of their views on Islam, while 31 per cent cited love of England, and a commitment to preservation of traditional national and cultural values.
The EDL does not have members in the conventional sense, Demos found. Subsequenly the think-tank maintains “it is more accurate to describe the group’s supporters as sub-groups of activists and sympathisers.”
Demonstrations and demographic
Around half of EDL members have been involved in demonstrations and/or marches, Demos found. The largest demonstration ever held by the EDL involved approximately 2,000–3,000 people.
Demos found EDL supporters are older and more educated than many assume: 28 per cent are over 30; 30 per cent are educated to university or college level; and 15 per cent have a professional qualification. There are far more male supporters than female: 81 per cent are male and 19 per cent female.
A significant percentage of supporters are unemployed – although this is especially true of older supporters, Demos found. Among 16–24-year-old EDL supporters, 28 per cent are unemployed, compared with a national average of 20 per cent for the same age group.
Among 25–64-year-olds, 28 per cent of EDL supporters are unemployed, compared with a national average of 6 per cent.
A number of groups vehemently oppose the EDL. Demos notes that some civil society groups have called for the EDL to be banned as an extremist organisation, arguing that the it ought to be included in the government’s new counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST.
Hope Not Hate maintains the EDL is “a racist organisation whose main activity is street demonstrations against the Muslim community.”
The group argues that “although it (the EDL) claims only to oppose Islamic extremism, it targets the entire Muslim community, and its actions deliberately seek to whip up tensions and violence between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.”
Meanwhile Unite Against Fascism labels the EDL “an organisation of racist thugs with links to the BNP (British National Party)” which “has targeted Muslims and mosques, whipping up hatred, division and violence where it has been allowed to march”.
Others, however, including Maurice Glasman, have called for dialogue to address the “legitimate” concerns of their membership. In April 2011 he said that Labour should involve EDL supporters.
However, Glasman later told the New Statesman: “It did not cross my mind that anyone could think that I support the English Defence League (EDL), which I consider a thuggish and violent organisation.
“When I said in an interview with Progress magazine in April that we should listen to supporters of the EDL, I was arguing that the best way to defeat fascist organisations is to engage with their supporters in a politics of the common good that addresses issues of family housing and safer streets, the living wage and a cap on interest rates.”