It’s been more than ten years since the most substantial definition of Islamophobia was formed in the UK by the Runnymede Trust (PDF), an independent policy research organisation, though there still remains a lack of clear meaning, interpretation and ownership of the term from both the British authorities and British Muslim bodies. There are even those who are skeptical of its mere existence and perpetuate the Islamophobia myth. But whatever term is used, the anecdotal evidence for an irrational fear of Islam and Muslims as a group is still evident.
The UK is now in the midst of an increasingly common and confrontational set of protests that are anti-Muslim. The newly formed English Defence League (EDL), though small, is the group instigating many of these growing protests. Their presence represents an organised community of individuals, overt in an anti-Islam ideology, with many of their group leaders and members linked to football hooliganism tribes. They mobilise support and trust through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter as well as on YouTube. They coordinate with like-minded groups in mainland Europe and America, responding to perceived threats and favouritism towards Muslims. And their intent to provoke a hostile response, rather than simply protest extremist Islam, shows some signs of succeeding.
Only three months old, EDL has already staged anti-Muslim protests in Luton, Birmingham and parts of London, demonstrating highly strategic and co-ordinated tactics. They recently joined forces with Stop the Islamification of Europe (SIOE), a similarly minded group previously active only in Denmark, and targeted their protest at the Harrow Central Mosque, under construction in west London, on the anniversary of 9/11 – not for any explicit tie to extremism, but because the five-storey mosque was simply deemed too big.
John Denham, the British Minister for Communities, compared the scenes of the protest to that of the 1930s Cable street protests led by Oswald Moseley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, in which Jews were provoked into violent responses to justify further injustices against them. But unlike Moseley’s army of black shirt supporters, EDL and SIOE barely made up fifteen people. Still, their low numbers managed to provoke a somewhat predictable reaction. Bottles and fireworks were hurtled at riot police by hundreds of angry Muslim youth. And headlines following the incident focused on the Muslim response, perpetuating the imagery that gave rise to the EDL in the first place.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, Islamophobia manifested itself through a plethora of channels from isolated attacks on some Muslims and mosques, through undertones in far-right political parties like the British National Party (BNP), to becoming institutionalised through some Policing tactics and some anti-terror measures. The new presence of the EDL and SIOE means that a more focused and explicitly hostile form of Islamophobia is manifesting itself in Britain. For those who failed to counter this form of discrimination in the past, there is a window of opportunity for some anti-Muslim sentiments to become more mainstream. Left unchecked, the growth of EDL’s network could fast become a power base leading to a fragmented society in the UK.
And yet the only group who organised counter protests was Unite Against Fascism (UAF), a non-Muslim led anti-fascist and anti-racist group. In comparison, British Muslim bodies, themselves prone to disagreement with the government and each other, failed to lead on a coordinated strategic response. So with the chaotic scenes of young angry British Muslims defending the mosque in Harrow, can groups like UAF truly represent and connect with young Muslims who feel victimized? On the one hand, the UAF takes race out of the equation and shows a more tolerant face of white England. But Muslims not taking the lead in response to the protests could be seen as another form of disenfranchisement.
Beyond this, it’s important to remember that these protests resemble the scattered, conspiracy-laden paranoia of America’s recent” tea parties”. Like those protests, explicit Nazi imagery and racist placards are common. And though claiming that they are against Islamic extremism, the EDL can’t seem to find, as in the case of the Harrow mosque and a similar Trafalgar Square protest, an extreme Islamic target to protest against. Similarly, SIOE has yet to demonstrate how anyone in Britain has actually been “Islamicized” – as opposed to Muslims in Britain practicing their religion freely in accordance with the law. What type of response to these groups would find the balance between marginalization of these views and a counterproductive overreaction?
New protests by the EDL are planned in Manchester next month and Scotland in November (a sister group, the Scottish Defence League, has been set up for that occasion). But Muslim groups in both locations are learning from recent events in the hope that a worrying trend can begin to reverse itself. The Scottish Islamic Foundation is organising public meetings to help figure out how it should respond to extreme anti-Islamic groups crossing the border. “This is time for Scotland to once again show we will not be divided by extremists,” says the group’s chairman, Asif Ahmed. “We have faced worse and come through it.”