English Defence League
It has been suggested that Organisation and structure of the English Defence League be merged into this article. (Discuss) Proposed since August 2019.
The English Defence League (EDL) is a far-right, Islamophobic organisation in the United Kingdom. A social movement and pressure group that employs street demonstrations as its main tactic, the EDL presents itself as a single-issue movement opposed to Islamism and Islamic extremism, although its rhetoric and actions target Islam and Muslims more widely. Founded in 2009, its heyday lasted until 2011, after which it entered a decline. It is presently chaired by Tim Ablitt.
|Motto||In hoc signo vinces (in this sign you will conquer)|
|Formation||27 June 2009|
Established in London, the EDL coalesced around several football hooligan firms protesting the public presence of the small Salafi Islamist group Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah in Luton, Bedfordshire. Tommy Robinson, a former member of the British National Party (BNP), soon became its de facto leader. The organisation grew swiftly, holding demonstrations across England and often clashing with anti-fascist protesters from Unite Against Fascism and other groups, who deemed it a racist organisation victimising British Muslims. The EDL also established a strong social media presence on Facebook and YouTube. Moving towards electoral politics, it established formal links with the far-right British Freedom Party, a breakaway from the BNP. The EDL's reputation was damaged in 2011 after supporters were convicted of plotting to bomb mosques and links were revealed with Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Breivik. In 2013 Robinson—supported by the Quilliam think tank—left the group. He claimed it had become too extreme, and established the short-lived rival Pegida UK. The group's membership declined significantly following Robinson's departure and various branches declared independence.
Ideologically on the extreme-right or far-right of British politics, the EDL is part of the international counter-jihad movement. Officially, it presents itself as being opposed to Islamism, Islamic extremism, and jihadism, although its rhetoric repeatedly conflates these with Islam and Muslims more broadly. Rejecting the idea that Muslims can truly be English, the EDL presents Islam as an intolerant, primitive threat seeking to take over Europe. Political scientists and other commentators have characterised this Islamophobic stance as culturally racist. Both online and at its events, EDL members have incited violence against Muslims, with supporters carrying out violent acts both at demonstrations and independently. The EDL's broader ideology features nationalism and populism, blaming a perceived decline in English culture on high immigration rates and an uncaring political elite. It distinguished itself from Britain's traditional far-right by rejecting biological racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. Although several of its leaders were previously involved in fascist organisations and some neo-Nazis and other fascists attended EDL events, commentators differ on whether the EDL itself is ideologically fascist or not.
Headed by a small leadership team, the EDL sub-divided into over 90 local and thematic divisions, each with considerable autonomy. Its support base consisted primarily of young, working-class white British men, some from established far-right and football hooligan subcultures. Polls indicated that most UK citizens opposed the EDL, and the group was repeatedly challenged by anti-fascist groups. Many local councils and police forces discouraged EDL marches, citing the high financial cost of policing them, the disruptive influence on community harmony, and the damage caused to counter-terrorism operations.
In the early 21st century, Muslims were Britain's second largest and fastest-growing religious group; according to the 2011 census, 2.7 million people in England and Wales described themselves as Muslim, representing 4.8% of the total population. At the same time, Muslims became the main scapegoat for far-right groups across Western society. In Britain, this was partly because prejudices against Jews and African-Caribbean people—both communities the far-right previously used as social scapegoats—were increasingly socially unacceptable. In the latter half of the 20th century, most British Muslims were of South Asian heritage. When they faced racist abuse, such as "Paki-bashing", it was usually because of their racial background, rather than their religious belief. By the 21st century, British Muslims were increasingly targeted because they were Muslim, including by members of other ethnic minorities in the country.
The fascist British National Party (BNP) was most successful at exploiting growing hostility against Muslims. It launched an overtly anti-Muslim campaign in 2000, which gained momentum after Salafi jihadi Muslims perpetrated the 2001 September 11 attacks in the United States and then the 7 July 2005 London bombings. This resulted in growing electoral success for the BNP: it secured a seat on the London Assembly in 2008 and two seats at the European Parliament in 2010. By 2011, this support had declined, with the party losing many of its local council seats. However, as noted by the political scientist Chris Allen, the BNP had "extended the frontier of the far right in British politics", creating an environment on which the English Defence League would later capitalise.
The town of Luton in Bedfordshire—which had a Muslim population of around 18%—had a history of radical Islamist recruitment. On 10 March 2009, the small, extreme British Salafi Islamist group Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah demonstrated in the town to protest against the Royal Anglian Regiment's homecoming parade following the latter's posting in Afghanistan. The demonstration was a deliberately provocative publicity stunt, and had been disowned by representatives from Luton's Islamic communities. Protesters held signs stating "Anglian Soldiers: Butchers of Basra", "Anglian Soldiers: Cowards, Killers, Extremists", and "British Government Terrorist Government". The small protest attracted media attention, generating anger that the authorities had given the demonstration permission and police protection.
A former regiment member, James Yeomans, organised a counter protest called "Respect Our Troops" for 28 March. After local anti-Islamist blogger Paul "Lionheart" Ray publicised the event online, various self-described "anti-jihadist" far-right groups emerging from the football hooligan firm scene—including the Welsh Defence League (WDL) and the March for England (MfE)—announced their intention to attend. Fearing the far right would hijack his event, Yeomans cancelled it. In its place, Ray organised an "anti-jihadist" march for St. George's Day, led by the newly founded United People of Luton (UPL), although this was broken up by police. The UPL organised a second demonstration for 24 May, titled "Ban the Terrorists": this again resulted in disorder, with police making several arrests. A related group was Casuals United, founded by established football hooligan Jeff Marsh: their website used the tagline "One Nation, One Enemy, One Firm", reflecting the group's desire to unite rival football firms in opposition to what it called the "Islamification" of Britain.
It was from this environment that the English Defence League was officially formed on 27 June 2009. Ray claimed to have been its founder, describing how the EDL united the UPL with other "anti-jihadist" groups from around England. Its creation reflected what Roger Eatwell termed "cumulative extremism", whereby the "activities of one extremist group trigger the formation of another". The EDL took its name from that of the Welsh Defence League; its founders also considered the name "British Defence League", but rejected this as being too similar to that of the British National Party. The EDL's foundation was accompanied by an impromptu protest outside the East London Mosque in Whitechapel, which police quickly dispersed. The following week the group picketed an event in Wood Green, North London organised by Salafi Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary and his Islam4UK group. Its first major public appearance to attract attention was in August, when the EDL and Casuals United held a joint protest in Birmingham prompted by Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah's conversion of an eleven-year-old white boy in that city. Ray distanced himself from that event, arguing that the chosen date—8 August—was a deliberate reference to 88, a code for HH (Heil Hitler), in neo-Nazi circles.
Not long after the group's formation, Ray formed a sub-group, the St. George Division; this broke from the EDL soon after, when Ray emigrated. This left the way for Tommy Robinson to become the EDL's de facto leader. A former BNP member with multiple criminal convictions for assault, Robinson's real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon; the pseudonym was borrowed from the head of a Luton football hooligan firm who had written several books about hooliganism. Robinson was clearly spoken, articulate and able to present his views in an assured and eloquent way during television interviews and other encounters with the media. According to the political scientist Joel Busher, Robinson was "a high-energy, fast-talking, all action character whose combination of swagger, self-deprecation and derring-do helped make him a popular figurehead within the movement." Ray was critical of his successor, and—from his new base in Malta—posted videos to YouTube in which he threatened to retake control of the EDL. These threats came to nothing.
Robinson's right-hand man was his cousin, Kevin Carroll, also a former BNP member with a criminal conviction; Carroll was the first of the pair to attract national attention, appearing on the BBC documentary Young, British and Angry. Another senior member was the multimillionaire IT consultant and fundamentalist Christian Alan Ayling, who used the pseudonym Alan Lake; allegations have been made, but not substantiated, that Lake was the group's primary financier, providing it with millions of pounds. Lake never become a visible figure in the movement and few members knew his name; it was at Lake's flat in London's Barbican area, however, where Ray, Robinson and Ann Marchini had discussed the EDL's formation in May 2009.
— Statement on the EDL website
Following the BNP's decline as a serious electoral force, the EDL's profile rose dramatically. The group portrayed itself as a necessary response to public frustration at the government's inaction in dealing with what the EDL initially termed "extremist Muslim preachers and organisations". It claimed that Englishness had been marginalised throughout England, citing the fact that some state schools only supplied halal meat and had stopped celebrating Nativity plays at Christmas time as evidence. It was also claimed that some local authorities had ceased flying the flag of St George.
The EDL focused on organising demonstrations: between 2009 and 2015, it held an average of between ten and fifteen demonstrations per year, attracting crowds of between 100 and 3000. It faced opposition from anti-fascist groups and media commentators, who described it as a "racist", "far right", and "extreme right" outfit, terms rejected by the group. Most notable among the anti-fascist groups organising counter-protests was Unite Against Fascism, while Islamic groups sometimes also held counter-protests. In turn, the EDL targeted left-wing groups. In December 2010, Robinson threatened action against student anti-fee protesters, while in 2011 the EDL harassed Occupy anti-capitalist protesters in London. During the 2011 England riots, contingents of EDL members mobilised in largely white areas of Outer London, such as Enfield and Eltham, claiming that they were there to "defend" them from rioters. These also resulted in clashes with police, and in one incident EDL members attacked a bus primarily carrying black youths.
From its origins, the EDL built a strong presence online; by mid-2011, the EDL's Facebook group had 90,000 members. Most local branches also had their own Facebook pages. In March 2010 it launched the first of its specialist divisions, the LGBT Division, after realising that gay individuals had attended its events but not under a unified banner. This was followed in May by the launch of its Jewish Division. In January 2012, Robinson expressed a wish to expand the EDL into a wider European Defence League.
The EDL began to lose momentum in 2011. Various factors contributed to this, including regional rivalries between divisions, a resurgence of sectarian enmities between rival football firms, and personal squabbles. By early 2011, several divisions in northern England were referring to themselves as "the Infidels", expressing an increasingly separate identity from the EDL. Several of the northern groups expressed support for a former EDL regional organiser, John "Snowy" Shaw, who had accused Robinson and Carroll of financial impropriety. At a February 2011 EDL rally in Blackburn, Shaw's supporters violently clashed with Robinson's; Robinson fought with a fellow member at the rally, resulting in a September 2011 conviction for assault. Robinson's criminal record prevented him from entering the US, but in September 2011 he sought to do so illegally by using someone else's passport. He was caught and returned to Britain; in January 2013 he was convicted of breaching the Identity Documents Act 2010 and imprisoned for ten months. Robinson's imprisonment coincided with Carroll's bail conditions which legally barred him from contacting fellow EDL members; this left the organisation without its co-leaders for part of 2012.
The EDL was further damaged after it was revealed that it had links to Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far-right activist who carried out a series of bombing and shooting attacks in July 2011, killing 77 people. He was affiliated with the EDL's Norwegian sister organisation, the Norwegian Defence League, and stated that he had "more than 600 EDL members as Facebook friends and have spoken with tens [sic] of EDL members and leaders". Breivik described EDL co-founder Ray as his "mentor", having been in communication with him since 2002. Four months before his attack, Breivik posted on the EDL website, describing them as an "inspiration" and "a blessing to all in Europe". Online, he described having attended an EDL rally in Bradford. Robinson denied any EDL links with Breivik and deplored the killings; however, after Breivik was convicted, some EDL members praised his actions. In July 2011, Interpol requested Maltese police investigate Ray due to his links with Breivik; he too condemned the killings, calling them "pure evil". In December 2011, two EDL supporters—one a serving soldier in the British military—were convicted of plotting to bomb a mosque in Stoke-on-Trent.
The EDL developed links with the British Freedom Party (BFP), a BNP breakaway founded in October 2010. The BFP was led by Eddy Butler, who had previously made an unsuccessful attempt to oust the BNP leader Nick Griffin. The BFP wanted to move closer to mainstream politics by de-emphasizing the BNP's biological racism and imitating continental European right-wing groups like the Dutch Party for Freedom. In May 2012, it was announced that Robinson and Carroll would join the BFP's executive council as joint vice chairs, cementing links between the BFP and the EDL. Robinson soon resigned from this position, citing a desire to focus on the EDL, although critics suggested that this may have been to shield the BFP from criminal proceedings he then faced.
In 2012, Carroll stood for election in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. In January 2013, he took charge of the BFP after its leader, Paul Weston, resigned. The BFP did poorly at a series of local elections, failing to gain sufficient votes to have its deposits returned; its failure to correctly register led to the Electoral Commission deregistering it. Among the EDL grassroots, there had been much opposition to association with the BFP; many feared that it would damage the EDL's reputation or stressed their desire to be part of a street movement rather than a political party. The EDL subsequently established links with another BNP breakaway group; in February 2013, it provided a security force for an event by the far-right British Democratic Party (BDP), which was founded by Andrew Brons, who had previously represented the BNP at the European Parliament.
By early 2013, commentators believed that the EDL had entered a decline, reflected in the decreasing numbers attending its events, Robinson's imprisonment, and its failure to enter electoral politics. Groups which had closely allied to the EDL, such as Casuals United and March for England, were reasserting their individual identities. Splinter groups appeared, among them the North West Infidels, North East Infidels, South East Alliance and Combined Ex-Forces. Some of these, such as the North West Infidels and South East Alliance, adopted more extreme perspectives, cooperating with the fascist National Front and making reference to the white supremacist 14 words slogan on their social media. Other activists moved away from the EDL to focus on campaigning for Brexit, the UK's exit from the European Union. It is possible that the electoral growth of the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) in this period also contributed to the EDL's decline, with many EDL supporters finding it easier to vote for UKIP than physically attend EDL events. In April 2013, the EDL leadership requested that members use tactical voting to benefit UKIP; the latter responded by distancing itself from the EDL.
The EDL experienced a brief resurgence in its fortunes after Islamist militants killed the British Army soldier Lee Rigby in southeast London in May 2013. The group tripled its number of Facebook followers in the 24 hours after the incident, and organised several flash demonstrations. At one such event, Robinson told members that "What you saw today [i.e. Rigby's killing] is Islam. Everyone's had enough." On 27 May, the EDL held a demonstration in central London that attracted a thousand participants; another, held in central Birmingham in July, attracted several hundred.
On 8 October 2013, Robinson and Carroll announced that they were leaving the EDL following meetings with the think tank Quilliam. Robinson said that street protests were "no longer effective" and "acknowledged the dangers of far-right extremism". He stated his intention to continue to combat extremism by forming a new party. Both Robinson and Carroll had been taking lessons in Islam from a Quilliam member, Usama Hasan, and stated their intent to train in lobbying institutions. Quilliam had given Robinson £8000 to facilitate his departure; it hoped that in doing so it would "decapitate" the EDL. Robinson's departure generated much anger among the grassroots, many of whom came to regard him as a traitor. A meeting of the group's regional organisers led to the EDL's adoption of a new system of collective leadership, through which the 19 regional organisers formed a governing committee with a rotating chair. The first to take on this role was Tim Ablitt; in February 2014 he was succeeded by Steve Eddowes; and in December 2015 by Ian Crossland, with the grassroots having been given a voice in his selection through an online vote.
Although the EDL had declined, the sentiments feeding it—especially anger at immigration and Islam—remained widespread in white working-class communities across Britain. Other far-right groups emerged to claim the space in British society that it left vacant, often utilising the EDL's tactics. Britain First sought to court disenchanted EDL members, although the two far-right groups were mutually hostile. Like the EDL, Britain First utilised street protests, organising what it called "Christian patrols" through areas with Islamic communities, as well as "mosque invasions" in which members marched into mosques to disrupt proceedings. In December 2015, Robinson launched another anti-Islam street movement, Pegida UK, with fellow far-right activist Anne Marie Waters; his hope was to imitate the successes of the German Pegida movement.
Political scientists identified the EDL as existing on the far-right of the left–right political spectrum. Some academics used the terms "right-wing extremism", and "extreme right" to characterise it, while the sociologist Kevin Braouezec described it as one of the "new far-right extremist movements". In various respects, it resembled other far-right groups, particularly those that emerged across Europe in the early 21st century. As noted by Chris Allen, the EDL is nevertheless "not a direct product of the traditional far-right milieu" in Britain, differing from other groups in its willingness to reach out to communities that the far-right historically discriminates against, namely Jews, people of colour, and LGBT people. The criminologists James Treadwell and Jon Garland suggested that the EDL reflected "both a continuation of and a departure from traditional far-right activity", while Paul Jackson—a historian of the far-right—referred to it as part of the "new far right", a movement that presents itself as being more moderate than older far-right groups.
— Historian of the far right Paul Jackson
Ideologically, the EDL was not wholly clear; it had no specific policies, goals, or manifesto, and no intellectual vanguard to lead it.The political scientist Julian Richards suggested that one of the reasons that the EDL should be categorised as far-right was because of how many of its members acted, in contrast to what the group officially stated in its public pronouncements. He observed that "There is no doubt that a considerable number of people with basic Far Right sentiments, including a general dislike of foreigners and ethnic minorities and a sympathy for Nazi movements and ideas can be found in and around the EDL." From its early days, members of far-right political parties like the NF and BNP attended the EDL's demonstrations, while a 2011 survey found that more EDL members intended to vote BNP than for any other party. Although concurring that the EDL was ideologically far-right, the political scientists George Kassimeris and Leonie Jackson cautioned against blurring "the official ideology" of the EDL with the views of its supporters.
The EDL disavows the label "far-right", as do many other groups within the "counter-jihad" movement. On its website, the EDL described itself as "non-political, taking no position on right-wing vs. left-wing. We welcome members from all over the political spectrum, and with varying views on foreign policy, united against Islamic extremism and its influence on British life." Its online material nevertheless often condemns left-wingers, and members regularly complain about "stupid lefties" who disagree with the EDL's views. When examining the EDL's public statements, Jackson cautioned against automatically taking them at face value; as he noted, far-right groups typically present "front stage" messages for public consumption which conceal more aggressive views that are expressed in private.
The EDL has also been characterised as being populist in ideology because of its claims to represent "ordinary people" against the liberal elites which it accuses of controlling the country. Research suggests that many EDL supporters bore more hatred for mainstream politicians than for Muslims. After her fieldwork with the group, the ethnographer Hilary Pilkington suggested that rather than referring to them as "far right", the EDL would be better classified as being part of the "populist radical right", a term earlier developed by the political scientist Cas Mudde. Based on their research among EDL members, Simon Winlow, Steve Hall and James Treadwell argued that the EDL should also be seen "unequivocally, [as] a working-class political movement" due to the makeup of its membership. In addition, they observed that it was "a fringe political group cut adrift from mainstream politics".
Anti-Islamism and Islamophobia
— Simon Winlow, Steve Hall and James Treadwell on the EDL
The EDL is part of a broader self-described international "counter-jihad" movement. The political scientist Hilary Aked defined counter-jihadism as "a section of the far-right distinguished by its hostility to migrants, Muslims and Islam." Another political scientist, Matthew Goodwin, noted that the counter-jihad movement was "united by their belief that Islam and Muslims are posing a fundamental threat to the resources, identities and even survival of Western states", and that counter-jihad groups were "more confrontational, chaotic and unpredictable than traditional anti-immigrant and ethnic nationalist movements in Western democracies".
Pilkington characterised the EDL as an "anti-Islamist movement", although noted that "there is slippage at movement level, and among individual supporters, into a broader anti-Islam or anti-Muslim position". Officially, the EDL stated it only opposed certain types of Islam and certain types of Muslim, being against the "Islamic extremist" but not the "ordinary Muslim", a distinction also drawn by many of its activists. However, the EDL's rhetoric regularly failed to make this distinction. On its website, the two are often conflated: a 2011 article stated that "The sheer number of cases of Islamic extremism should suggest... that the problem should not be seen as being with a sub-sect of Islam that no one can really define... but as a problem with Islam itself." It is likely that many who encountered the EDL's rhetoric were not able to appreciate a distinction between different interpretations of Islam, and research among the group's grassroots found that many did not do so.
The EDL's discourse constructed a binary division between Western culture and Islamic culture, the former presented as tolerant and progressive and the latter as intolerant and backward. Islam is perceived as being anachronistic, having failed to adapt to the modern world; EDL members regularly referred to it as an "ideology" or a "cult" rather than a "religion." Like other right-wing populists across Europe, the EDL present Muslims as being intrinsically culturally incompatible, and threatening, to European societies,  evoking Samuel P. Huntington's notion of the Clash of Civilizations, as well as the idea of Salafi Islamist militant groups such as Al Qaeda that the Western and Islamic worlds are fundamentally at conflict. Although the EDL promotes a multi-racial concept of the English nation, its rhetoric explicitly distinguishes Muslims as being apart from this national group. For the EDL, a Muslim cannot be truly English, and the idea of an English Muslim or a British Muslim identity is not considered acceptable.
— In the EDL mission statement
EDL members characterised Islam as a threat to Western culture, presenting it as a misogynistic, homophobic, and dangerous force, one which is discriminatory, intolerant, and hateful towards non-Muslims. Muslims are associated in EDL discourse not just with the oppression of women, Jews, and gay people, but also with terrorism, rape, paedophilia, and incest. The caricature of the Muslim in the EDL's discourse was similar to the anti-Semitic caricature of the Jew promoted in Nazi Germany. The EDL consistently associated Muslims with negative behaviour and blamed this upon Islam itself, selectively identifying passages from the Qur'an which it claimed Muslims use to justify their anti-social and criminal behaviour. The EDL's Facebook page shared news stories which depicted Muslims negatively, while EDL members often engaged in confirmation bias, believing any negative claims about Muslims they encounter—whether true or not—that fit within their pre-accepted worldview in which Muslims are seen as inherently immoral and dangerous.
EDL members believed that Muslims always protected their own while viewing non-Muslims as fair game for abuse and exploitation. EDL supporters thought Muslims failed to respect non-Muslims, regarding them only as "infidels"; in turn, various EDL figures referred to themselves as "infidels" and the term was emblazoned on some EDL merchandise. Various EDL members recalled incidents in which Muslims had been disrespectful towards them or to British and English culture. For instance, members cited instances in which Islamists burned remembrance poppies in protest at British military activities abroad; for the EDL, this was incredibly disrespectful toward the British people. Other EDL members described more personal encounters; one woman described painting St George's flag on her face in preparation for an England football match, but being barred from boarding a bus by its Muslim driver who claimed that her display of the flag offended him. For her, this event was a catalyst for joining the EDL.
Islamophobia and cultural racism
— Political scientists George Kassimeris and Leonie Jackson
Although there is little consensus as to how Islamophobia should be defined, a range of scholars who have studied the EDL have characterised it as an Islamophobic organisation. Allen noted that "The EDL is creating and perpetuating meanings about Muslims and Islam, whether real or imaginary, accurate or inaccurate, representative or misrepresentative, that are clearly ideologically Islamophobic." As he noted, the EDL's presentation of all Muslims without distinction as the "irrefutable Other" was "clearly Islamophobic". Similarly, Kassimeris and Jackson stated that in presenting non-Muslims as the "in-group" and Muslims as the "out-group" and then trying to "exclude Muslims from the national community" in Britain, the EDL were Islamophobic.
The EDL rejected the idea that it is Islamophobic. In a statement it declared that "the English Defence League do not 'fear' Islam, we do not have a 'phobia' about Islam, we just realise the very serious threat it poses". In defining Islamophobia as a phobia or an affected prejudice—a definition rejected by the majority of academics and activists employing the term—the EDL sought to dismiss the concept as nonsense. On its website, it stated that the biggest threat to Muslims is not "Islamophobia" but the "extremism that thrives in the Muslim community" itself, including "the embrace of violent and anti-democratic means, the intolerance, the separatism, the attacks on homosexuals and Jews, the hatred of 'the West', and the continued hosting of radical preachers."
Various political scientists and other academic observers describe the EDL's Islamophobia as a form of cultural racism, or the "new racism" described by Martin Baker in the early 1980s. This emphasis on cultural racism—which entails stereotyping a group on the basis of cultural (as opposed to biological) features and presenting them as having a "culturally 'fixed' set of values" which are dangerous, inferior, and diametrically opposed to the cultural values of "the national community"—was a recurring trait among many of the "new far right" groups active in Europe, and differentiated them from earlier far right groups which tended to adopt biological racism. The EDL rejected the idea that its stance on Muslims could be racist, stating that "Islam is not a race". Conversely, EDL members have referred to Muslims as racist; one member was quoted as saying: "people say we're racist but, when you think about it, they're [i.e. Muslims] the ones that's racist. They're killing white people just because they're white. They're killing Christians because they're Christian. It's them that's declared a holy war. We are just reacting."
Hatred of Muslims
Following their fieldwork among EDL supporters, Winlow, Hall and Treadwell noted that all those whom they had encountered expressed hatred of Muslims. Many placed this hatred in relation to local issues and personal experiences; for instance, EDL members regarded being poorly treated by an Asian shopkeeper as evidence that Muslims intrinsically hate the white working-class. Instances when Muslims have been friendly toward them are treated as evidence that Muslims are conniving, appearing friendly to white non-Muslims so as to catch them off guard. EDL members expressed anger at what they perceived as Muslims' wealth—contrasting it to their own strained economic situation—and the fact that Muslim migrants received council housing and benefits which EDL members believed they had not earned; EDL members commonly believed that the welfare system should only be available for native Britons and not migrants. EDL supporters criticised the perceived ruthless entrepreneurship of Muslims, including the way that they profited off of the white working-class through charging high prices in their shops, also alleging that Muslims regularly avoided paying tax and helped other Muslims advance over white Britons. EDL members expressed anger at perceived Muslim involvement in drug dealing and other crimes impacting their communities; for many, the intimidating presence of Muslim gangs in their local area was seen as a more direct issue than Islamic terrorism.
A topic of particular anger was the role of men from Muslim backgrounds in grooming gangs largely targeting underage white girls. For instance, in highlighting that men from Islamic backgrounds were disproportionately represented in the Rochdale and West Midlands child sex grooming scandals, the EDL claimed these men found justification for their actions in Qur'anic references to non-Muslims being inferior and thus acceptable targets. They also believed that Muslims legitimated such actions by reference to the fact that Islam's founder, Muhammad, married one of his wives, Aisha, when she was a child. Such claims were made despite the absence of evidence that these sex offenders claimed "Islamic supremacism" as justification for their actions; it also ignores the fact that according to Crown Prosecution Service figures, 85% of UK sex offenders are white men. When white sex offenders were exposed, EDL members were still angry but regarded the perpetrator's ethnicity or religion as irrelevant, a firm contrast to their response when the perpetrators were of Muslim background. Some EDL members believed that white sex offenders were treated more harshly than their Muslim counterparts; one contrasted how Jimmy Savile was publicly reviled while Muhammad—whom EDL members typically considered a paedophile due to his marriage to Aisha—was revered.
Online, supporters expressed comments that were derogatory of Islam like "Islam is a sick vile evil primitive barbaric cult that needs wiping from the earth." Fieldwork among EDL members found many derogatory comments about Muslims; one member was quoted as stating that "They can't live like us cos they are not evolved for it, they are simple, made for backward villages in the mountain where they can sit around eating stinking curries and raping chickens." On the EDL's social media, many supporters incited violence against Muslims: "we need to kill", "time to get violent", "Kill any muslim u see [sic]", "Kill the curry munching bastards", and "Petrol bomb your nearest mosque". Chants during rallies included "We hate all Muslims", "Die, Muslim, die", "Give me a gun and I'll shoot the Muzzie scum", "I hate Pakis more than you", and "Burn our poppies and we'll burn your mosques". Such sentiments also came from its ethnic minority supporters; Guramit Singh, the head of the EDL's Sikh Division, stated that Muslims will end up "burning in fucking hell", and expressed the opinion that "I fucking hate the Pakis. India needs to go to war with Pakistan."
Views on terrorism, extremism, and shariah
The EDL claimed that Britain's Muslims fail to speak out against Islamic extremism and thus implicitly support it. It also alleged that British Muslims spend more time complaining about discrimination and attacking critics of Islam than eliminating extremism within their own ranks. Because of this, the EDL alleged that British Muslims' commitment to "British values" is questionable. The perception that "moderate" Muslims do little or nothing to counter "extremism" was also widespread among the group's grassroots. In making this accusation, the EDL ignored the many examples of Islamic groups speaking out and campaigning against extremism and terrorism, and—according to Jackson—promoted "a major distortion of reality" by repeatedly presenting extremism as the "dominant characteristic" of Muslim communities.
EDL discourse repeatedly referred to what it called "Islamic supremacism", the belief that Muslims express a superiority complex over non-Muslims. It feared that Muslims had imperialistic designs, wanting to dominate Britain, claiming that this was being facilitated through higher birth rates among Muslims than non-Muslims. Robinson for instance stated that "20 years down the line we'll be overrun by Islam", while EDL rhetoric referred to Muslims "spreading across our country" and besieging the "patriotic people" of England. The EDL portrayed Muslim attempts to participate in political life as entryism, an attempt to expand Islamic influence in the Britain, and also claimed that the building of mosques reflected a desire to dominate the country.
The EDL claimed that the greater Islam's reach, the more that non-Muslims would be victimised and discriminated against. Meadowcroft and Morrow attended a Wolverhampton EDL meet-and-greet event where the local division leader stated that he joined "for my children and grandchildren because I don't want them to be taken to mosques as part of their school excursions and I don't want to see my granddaughter wearing a burqa or being punished for wearing a short skirt." Similarly, Richards quoted one young woman at a 2010 Dudley protest as saying that she attended because "I don't want my daughters to grow up having to wear the burqa." EDL members perceive the burqa and niqab as being intimidating towards non-Muslims, degrading to women, and facilitating the concealment of criminals and terrorists.
The EDL believed Muslims wanted to impose sharia law on Britain and Western society. The group generalises sharia as a uniform set of rules, ignoring the fact that it represents a diverse and often contradictory range of approaches to Islamic jurisprudence. In opposing sharia, which it regards as inherently misogynistic, the EDL positions itself as the defenders of women, employing the slogan "EDL Angels [i.e. women] stand beside their men, not behind them". In presenting female members as angels, the EDL contrasts the image of Western women with the stereotype of the burqa-clad Muslim woman. Alternately, in rejecting traditional Islamic attitudes to womanhood, many EDL women embrace the image of the "slut" who engages in binge drinking and can be "one of the lads", engaging in raucous and violent behaviour alongside their male counterparts. EDL members expressed support for the French ban on face covering introduced in 2010. The EDL also emphasised the cruelty of halal slaughter techniques, presenting them as more cruel than kosher slaughter practices. In its "Halal Campaign" launched in 2011, the EDL campaigned against stores and restaurants that sold halal meat without labelling it as such, citing this as evidence that Muslims were seeking to impose their practices on the rest of society.
Nationalism and anti-immigration stance
The EDL is staunchly nationalist; its members expressed a strong love of England and described themselves as patriots. Jackson considered it ultra-nationalist, while several academics argued that it embraced an ethnic conception of nationalism. Copsey suggested that it was an identitarian form of English nationalism in which a "native English" identity was deployed as the main weapon against Islam. In his view, the desire to protect "Englishness" as a form of "traditional ethno-national dominance" is strong among members. Pilkington argued that although some members expressed nativist sentiment, for most members, pride in being English was not the same as the "white pride" expressed by fascist groups like the BNP. The journalist Daniel Trilling nevertheless commented that the EDL's concept of "Englishness" was ambiguous; similarly, Winlow, Hall and Treadwell observed that the EDL's conception of an "English way of life" was "poorly sketched out" — their EDL contacts could not agree on what it constituted, and the only thing that they agreed upon was that Muslims fundamentally rejected it.
The EDL's attitude to nationhood is reflected in chants like "we want our country back"; the term Defence in its name presents English identity as something that is under threat. The EDL's nationalist stance is also reflected in its nomenclature and choice of symbols, which regularly include the cross of St George; its logo, for instance, features St George's cross on a shield. Such imagery evokes the symbolism of the medieval Crusades, in which Christians battled Muslims for control of the Holy Land. The motto featured on the logo is in Latin: "in hoc signo vinces", and was taken from that of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. The name also reflects a militaristic stance, as did branded clothing with text like "Loyal Footsoldier", while it also employs the martial slogan "NS", an abbreviation for "No Surrender", sometimes presented in the altered form of "Never Fucking Surrender Ever" (NFSE). On the EDL discussion board, members regularly referred to a forthcoming war.
Alessio and Meredith thought the EDL was anti-immigrant. Although the EDL's founding mission statement did not mention migration, in February 2014, the EDL stated its intention to include opposition to "mass immigration" in it. In July 2014 an EDL demonstration was held in Hexthorpe, South Yorkshire to oppose the migration of Roma people to the area. Anti-migrant sentiment was common among EDL members, who often believed that official figures underestimated the number of immigrants in Britain. Members often saw immigration as detrimental to the white British, being socially divisive and fundamentally changing the nature of England. EDL members saw migrants as economic competition, outcompeting white British workers for jobs by working for less that the legal minimum wage. At the same time, they often expressed sympathy for migrants as individuals seeking a better life, and typically distinguished between "good" migrants who worked hard and paid taxes and "bad" migrants who lived off the welfare state. While accepting the multi-racial nature of England, EDL members almost uniformly rejected the ideology of multiculturalism, portraying it as something mainstream politicians encouraged out of a desire to be seen as cosmopolitan and progressive and because of a fascination for the exoticism of other cultures.
Views on race and sexuality
— Political scientist Chris Allen
The EDL stated that it was not a racist organisation. It used the slogan: "Not racist, not violent, just no longer silent", and on its website, described itself as taking an "actively anti-racist and anti-fascist stance". The group's Nottingham Division stipulated that anyone engaging in "Racial abuse, Racist 'jokes', [or] Explicitly racist conduct" would be expelled. Robinson stated that people of "all races and faiths" were welcome to join, and it employed the slogan "Black and White unite: all races and religions are welcome in the EDL". Individuals of Asian, African, and mixed heritage attended EDL events, albeit in small numbers, and the group formed specific divisions for Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Greek and Cypriot, and Pakistani Christian supporters. Pilkington noted that these ethnic minority supporters were often viewed as "trophy" members, with many white members asking to have their photographs taken with them at EDL events.
Pilkington also found that white EDL members were keen to stress that they had friends and family members from ethnic minority backgrounds as a means of countering accusations of racism; many accepted that England was a multi-racial and multi-cultural country and often regarded this as a good thing. She noted that among many EDL members, "lack of racism towards one group is assumed to be evidence of lack of racism against all"; they believed that because they did not hate people of colour, they could not be racist, regardless of their anti-Muslim prejudices. For the EDL, the Muslim identity was solely a "religious" one and not a "racial" one, and thus in their view prejudice against Muslims could not be "racism". From her fieldwork, Pilkington found that EDL members adopted a simple, narrow definition of "racism", using the term in reference to hatred for another race and believing that racial categories were rooted in biological difference and demarcated by skin colour.
Constructing links with non-white communities was not unprecedented among the British far-right; the BNP had earlier established links with anti-Islamic elements in the Hindu and Sikh communities. Far-right football hooligan subcultures had become increasingly welcoming towards black people following the growth of black players in British football teams. However, Busher observed that the racial slur "paki" was common at private EDL meetings; Pilkington similarly recalled a car journey with EDL members who made comments like "dirty Paki" and "fucking filthy cunt" when passing Asians on the street. Explicitly racist language was also used at demonstrations; one chant used was "If we all hate Pakis, clap your hands", while a 2010 video from Stoke City features an EDL protester shouting at a police officer: "You fucking Paki-loving bastard!"
The EDL's discourse presents Muslims as being uniquely problematic in Britain, juxtaposing them unfavourably with the country's other ethnic and cultural minorities. On its website, it contrasted Muslims with Sikhs, stating that the latter "have shown an impressive willingness to integrate, to accept the laws of the land, and to confront and defeat any form of extremism." A Sikh Awareness Society representative spoke at an EDL event, where they noted that no other religious group has a "-phobia" attached to it, thus implying that Muslims were uniquely guilty in doing things to generate prejudice against them. This attitude has also been reported among EDL members; Treadwell and Garland quoted one young male EDL activist as stating that "The Paki, the Muslim, to me is the enemy, they are like everything we are not... [but] Sikhs and Hindus are not cunts, the Indians, they are ok. They are not like Pakis. Pakis are different... They come here to take advantage of us, they sell fucking smack, rob off whites but not their own, force young girls into prostitution. They are fucking scum."
The EDL also condemned homophobia and established an LGBT division in March 2010. It stated that "EDL welcomes gay people to join in the struggle to protect our values, especially as gay people would be some of those who suffer most under an islamic [sic] regime." It had initially invited the anti-Islam American pastor Terry Jones—known for burning copies of the Qur'an—to attend one of its demonstrations, but withdrew the invitation, stating that it disapproved of Jones' views on sexuality and race. Allen suggested that the EDL's support of LGBT rights marked it apart from Britain's "traditional far right". This pro-LGBT rights stance allowed the EDL to criticise what it saw as the left's refusal to confront Islamic homophobia as well as to conflate Islamism with Nazism. Pilkington argued that this pro-LGBT rights stance was not solely a cynical ploy by the EDL's leadership, but reflected widespread views within the movement. She observed gay and transgender members speaking openly at EDL events and receiving a warm reception, while the LGBT rainbow flag was regularly flown at EDL rallies by the leader of its LGBT division; at the same time, Pilkington heard homophobic comments at EDL events.
Relationship to fascism and neo-Nazism
Several commentators argued that the EDL is not fascist. Nigel Copsey, a historian of the far-right, stated that the EDL was not driven by the same "ideological end-goal" as neo-fascist and other fascist groups; unlike fascist groups, the EDL has not expressed a desire for major structural change to the British state. Several fascist groups sought to differentiate themselves from the EDL; one white nationalist stated that "The EDL—with its jew flag, nignog members, fag rainbow group, Sikh spokesman and sheeple attendees, are the antithesis of White Nationalism." The BNP distanced itself from the EDL and declared it a proscribed organisation; BNP leader Nick Griffin claimed the EDL was a false flag operation manipulated by "Zionists".
Conversely, the political scientists Dominic Alessio and Meredith Kristen stated that, while the EDL could not be labelled "a fascist organization", there was evidence of "a fascist tradition within the ideology of the EDL". They suggested the EDL "embodied" many of the "key characteristics of fascism": a staunch nationalism and calls for national rebirth, a propensity for violence, and what they described as "pronounced anti-democratic and anti-liberal tendencies" among its leaders. Noting that it was "the actions and practices of members", rather than "just their words and slogans", which "lend themselves to a more coherently fascist ideology", they compared the EDL's tactics with those of the Italian interwar squadristi, which formed a crucial element of Benito Mussolini's National Fascist Party. They highlighted that much of the group's leadership came directly from the fascist BNP, and that EDL events have been supported by present and former members of fascist groups like the National Front (NF), the Racial Volunteer Force, Blood & Honour, and Combat 18.
The EDL is not a neo-Nazi organisation, and distanced itself from neo-Nazism. In an October 2009 publicity stunt for the BBC's show Newsnight, EDL members burned a Nazi flag, members carried the Israeli flag during demonstrations, and the organisation created a Jewish division to distance itself from the anti-Semitism characteristic of Nazism. However, early EDL demonstrations were advertised on the white supremacist website Stormfront, and Holocaust denial has been espoused on the EDL's social media platforms. Known neo-Nazis have attended EDL events, where individuals have been recorded giving the Nazi straight-arm salute. In 2011, the head of the EDL's Jewish Division, Roberta Moore, left the organisation, citing the presence of neo-Nazi and fascist individuals.
The EDL sometimes expelled those it regarded as extremists. In late 2011, an individual was banned from EDL events after being photographed giving a Nazi salute. In another case, Bill Baker—a senior figure in the London EDL and the leader of the English Nationalist Alliance—was ejected in early 2011 after he publicly expressed views the EDL considered racist. At an October 2010 demonstration, Robinson publicly stated: "We're not Nazis, we're not fascists – we will smash Nazis the same way we will smash militant Islam. We are exactly about black and white unite, every single community in this country can come and join our ranks, fill our ranks. We don't care if you arrived here yesterday; you're welcome to protect our Christian culture and our way of life." Pilkington found that this desire to expunge the EDL of neo-Nazi and fascist elements was not just a top-down exercise in public relations, but had the popular support of EDL members more broadly, who were keen to distinguish themselves from neo-Nazis.
Organisation and structure
Academics characterise the EDL as a social movement, and more specifically as a new social movement, and a social movement organisation. In its organisational structure, the EDL has been characterised by academic observers as a direct action or street-based protest movement. It is a pressure group rather than a political party. During fieldwork with the group, Joel Busher found that many EDL members stressed the idea that the group was not a political organisation, instead presenting it as a single-issue protest group or street movement. Busher noted that these individuals were aware of the tactical advantages of doing so, believing that in presenting itself in this manner it could avoid associations both with older far-right groups like the NF and BNP and with accusations of racism. Like several other counter-jihad groups operating in Western countries, the EDL describes itself as a human rights organisation, although this characterisation is not widely accepted among the British public.
Leadership and branches
The EDL's informal structure lacked strict hierarchy, or clear leadership. In its early years, the EDL was controlled by a leadership group referred to as the "team"; they often remained anonymous or used pseudonyms. As of June 2010, this group consisted of six men, including Robinson. In 2010, the EDL went through a formal restructuring to deal with Robinson's absence, although till October 2013, the EDL was led by Robinson and Carroll as co-leaders, supported by the regional organisers of the 19 regional divisions. After that duo left, it was reorganised around a committee leadership headed by a rotating chair.
The EDL lacked a central regulatory structure through which to impose a uniform approach to strategy or maintain ideological purity throughout. It operated through a loose network of local divisions, each largely autonomous; this loose structure was popular among the membership. There was no system of official membership recognised through membership cards, and no membership fees. The EDL divided into at least ninety different divisions. Branches typically held their meeting in pubs with sympathetic owners, referred to as "HQs". These meetings—which were infrequent and often poorly attended—were typically unstructured, lacking any formal agenda or the taking of minutes. As well as these divisional meetings, EDL divisions also held "meet and greet" events to attract new membership.
Some divisions were based on locality and others on special interests. The latter included a women's division, Jewish division, Sikh division, Hindu division, and LGBT division. For a brief period it also had a disabled division, green division, a soldiers' division, and a youth division. These groups were designed to raise the profile of particular social groups within the EDL itself and help to draw recruits from sectors of society that normally avoided membership in a far-right grouping, such as ethnic minorities and LGBT people. Some local divisions covered whole cities or counties while in other cases there could be more than one division representing a single postcode, in part due to personal disputes. Local groups were organised into a series of nine areas: North West, North East, East Midlands, West Midlands, East Anglia, South West, South East, South East Central, and Greater London. In 2010, new regional organisers were introduced for each; the EDL was heavily reliant on these grassroots networks and the initiative of local and regional leaders.
— Political scientist Joel Busher
The EDL's primary activity was street protests, which regularly attracted media attention. These protests came in three forms: national demonstrations attracting activists from across the country, local demonstrations featuring largely the local EDL division, and the flash demonstrations held without giving the authorities prior warning of the event. The use of aggressive street rallies has a longer history among the British far-right, having been previously used by the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, the National Front in the 1970s, and the British National Party in the 1980s and 1990s.
Copsey noted that the "overwhelming majority" of attendees at EDL demonstrations were "young, white, working-class males". Relatively few women attended, and similarly comparatively few people of colour joined. At events, many members sought to have their photograph taken with the few Sikhs in attendance, thus seeking to bolster the idea that they were not personally racist.
EDL members had a "street uniform" in the form of wristbands, t-shirts, and hoodies bearing the group's logo. The hoodie was often selected for its intimidating atmosphere and for its symbolic connections with the chav stereotype, thus reasserting members' working-class identity. Many members wore masks decorated with either the EDL logo or the St George's cross; some wore pig face masks or masks of figures whom they wished to ridicule, such as the Salafi jihadist leader Osama bin Laden. Others carried the English flag of St George or the British Union Jack flag, and the Israeli and LGBT Pride flags were also often in attendance. Reflecting the place of football hooligans in the EDL, some male members wore expensive designer clothing to its rallies, most notably Fred Perry polo shirts, jeans or combat trousers, and Adidas trainers.
To reach national events, local EDL groups often hired coaches to transport them to their destination. The coach provided a space in which these members engaged in singing, banter, story-telling, and practical jokes. As well as being protests, these demonstrations served as social events for EDL members, helping to forge a sense of solidarity and of the EDL as "one big family". At demonstrations, many members—including those too young to legally drink—consume large quantities of alcohol, with some also consuming cocaine prior to the protest.
At demonstrations, speeches typically focus on the perceived threat of Islamification, but also raise issues like the dangers of political correctness and the errors of the political left. EDL demonstrations were typified by continuous chanting with aggressive slogans aimed at Muslims. Pilkington divided these chants into three types: those which were anti-Islam, those which were patriotic in referencing an English identity, and those which were identity affirming in making specific reference to the EDL itself. Examples of the first category included "Muslim bombers off our streets", "No surrender to the Taliban", "Protect women, no to sharia", "If you wear a burqa you're a cunt", "You can stick your fucking Islam up your arse", "You can shove your fucking Allah up your arse", "Allah is a paedo", and "Allah, Allah, who the fuck is Allah?". Examples of the second category include "I'm England till I die", "We want our country back", and "Whose streets? Our streets!", while the third included the chant "E... E... EDL". When confronting counter-protesters from the UAF and other groups, EDL members often chanted "You're not English anymore". Alongside chants, the EDL often employed songs, including the UK national anthem "God Save the Queen", patriotic songs like "Keep St George in my Heart, Keep me English"—sung to the tune of the hymn "Give Me Joy in My Heart"—and the anti-Islam themed "There were Ten Muslim Bombers in the Air".
— Simon Winlow, Steve Hall, and James Treadwell on EDL demonstrations
During demonstrations, the EDL have regularly been met with opposition from anti-fascist groups like Unite Against Fascism, and sometimes also from Islamic groups. The clashes between the rival groups often resulted in violence and public disorder, with the police seeking to keep the two apart. The police and local authorities initially allowed most EDL rallies to take place and did not often request banning orders. In October 2010, West Yorkshire Police successfully requested a government ban on the EDL holding a rally in Bradford, fearing that it would spark violent racial tensions akin to those which had taken place in 2001. In October 2010, the Home Secretary Theresa May granted Leicester Police's request to ban a planned EDL march in that city. By September 2011, over 600 arrests had been made in connection with EDL demonstrations and the policing costs were estimated to have exceeded £10 million. In some cases, most of those arrested were EDL members; in others, most of those arrested were counter-protesters.
Mobilising on local issues
The EDL sometimes mobilised around localised tensions between Islamic and non-Muslim communities, campaigns often organised by local divisions rather than the national leadership. After inebriated Somali women racially assaulted a white woman in Leicester in June 2010, the EDL organised a protest rally there, attributing the attack to the supremacist attitude that Islam supposedly cultivated among its followers. When a white man was assaulted by Asian youths in the Hyde area of Greater Manchester, the EDL again organised a demonstration, blaming the attack on Muslims, although police had not ascertained the perpetrators' religious background. In April 2011, the group demonstrated in Blackburn in response to hit and run incidents where Muslim drivers had hit non-Muslims; the EDL disregarded requests by the victims' families not to politicise the events.
In 2011, the EDL launched a nationwide campaign, "No New Mosques", which built upon earlier campaigns against mosque construction organised by various local divisions. When a mosque was due to be built in West Bridgford, an EDL organiser and three associates placed a severed pig's head at the site, accompanied with the spray-painted slogan "No mosque here EDL Notts". In April 2010, 3000 EDL demonstrators protested the construction of a new mosque in Dudley. Two months later, EDL members occupied the roof of an abandoned building on the site of the proposed mosque, expressing their intent to play the Islamic call to prayer five times a day to alert locals to the noise pollution they would suffer when the mosque was built. Police swiftly removed the demonstrators.
The EDL was aware that its demonstrations proved costly for local authorities. The Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council for instance stated that policing the 2010 EDL protest had cost over £1 million. To deal with an EDL protest in Leicester, the Leicestershire Police Force had to put on its largest operation in 25 years, bringing in 2000 police officers to manage the demonstration. The EDL used this leverage to pressurise local councils into agreeing to some of its demands; in 2010 it issued a letter stating that any local councils that held Winter-themed festivities rather than explicitly Christmas-themed ones could "have their town/city visited by the English Defence League throughout the following year".
The EDL claimed to disavow violence, blaming violence at its demonstrations on counter-protesters. Despite this, many of those who attend its rallies seek the thrill of violent confrontation, describing the pleasure and adrenalin rush they receive from it as a motivating factor in their attendance. Some described violent clashes as the best way to draw media attention to their cause. Copsey noted that "it is hard to escape the conclusion that, on the ground, the EDL is a violent organisation." Meadowcroft and Morrow argued that many football hooligans joined the EDL because of the opportunity that its rallies offered for violence at a time when there were decreasing opportunities to do so at football matches themselves due to greater use of banning orders targeting known hooligans, a more effective police presence, and increasing ticket prices that had becoming prohibitively high for those on low incomes.
In various cases, EDL demonstrators damaged Asian-owned businesses and property; in October 2011, EDL members stormed and ransacked an Ahmadiyya Islamic bookstore in Sandwell, and in August 2011 an EDL member was convicted for vandalising a mosque. Demonstrations also led to physical attacks on Asians themselves. Not all targets of EDL violence have been Muslim; in a July 2010 demonstration in Dudley, EDL members attacked a Hindu temple. It is unclear whether they mistook it for a mosque or whether it reflected broader racist attitudes among the demonstrators. Treadwell and Garland interviewed EDL members who had engaged in violence both independently and at demonstrations. One described how, at a protest, he attacked an Asian counter demonstrator: "[I] hit this Paki in the face and he just looked so shocked. So I hit him again and that put him down, then we gave him a fucking good kicking." This EDL member added that he felt "proud afterwards. It made me feel like I'd made a stand." Many others of those interviewed also portrayed their violence as being heroic.
EDL members also disrupted the meetings of opponents; in September 2010 they disrupted a UAF meeting in Leicester, and later that month attacked a meeting of the far-left Socialist Workers Party in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. EDL members also targeted left-wing bookshops and trade union buildings, and members have been jailed for attacking staff at office buildings hosting anti-EDL meetings. The EDL also targeted demonstrators from the anti-capitalist Occupy movement; in November 2011, 179 EDL members were arrested in central London for threatening members of Occupy London. Journalists that covered EDL marches also received death threats.
The EDL made significant use of the internet, including both an official website and accounts on social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube. In using social media, the EDL sought to bypass the mainstream media, which it regarded as being biased against it. The EDL hierarchy moderated these social media accounts, blocking users critical of the EDL, but did not appear to remove posts advocating violence towards Muslims. The use of Facebook allowed the group to build momentum and expectancy ahead of public events. The EDL's Facebook following peaked at 100,000 before the Facebook corporation closed the group's account.
Unlike political parties, the EDL did not produce leaflets expressing any political program, nor did it print a magazine or newsletter. The EDL News section of its website published articles, commentary, and information on forthcoming events and campaigns, which were then linked to through its social media. The EDL also used its website to sell branded merchandise, including hoodies, t-shirts, caps, pin badges, and face masks. Following internal allegations that EDL members were taking the monetary proceeds for themselves, the EDL pulled merchandise from its website in September 2010. It also sold merchandise on the auction website eBay.
— Historian of the far right Paul Jackson
The EDL formed links with ideologically similar groups internationally, particularly in Europe and the United States. These included sectors of the U.S. Tea Party movement; it affiliated with the U.S.-based Stop Islamization of America run by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. Geller served as the EDL's bridge to the Tea Party movement, but later distanced herself from it, claiming that the EDL contained neo-Nazi elements. When Moore was head of the EDL's Jewish Division, she established links with a far right Jewish American group, the Jewish Task Force. In September 2010, EDL representatives joined demonstrations in New York City's Lower Manhattan to protest against the construction of the "Ground Zero Mosque", and in 2012 attended the "Stop Islamization of Nations" conference, again in New York City.
EDL members attended a Berlin rally organised by the Pax Europa Citizens Movement in April 2010 in support of Geert Wilders—a right-wing populist politician who had been charged for comparing Islam to Nazism. In June 2010 two EDL representatives attended the Counter-Jihad 2020 conference held by the anti-Muslim International Civil Liberties Alliance in Zurich. In October 2010, Robinson and other EDL members travelled to Amsterdam to protest outside Wilders' trial—although Wilders himself stated that he had no personal contact with the EDL. Here, Robinson announced plans for a "European Friendship Initiative" with the German, Dutch, and French Defence Leagues. In April 2011 Robinson and other EDL representatives attended a small rally in Lyon, France alongside the French far-right group Bloc Identitaire; various participants, including Robinson, were arrested. In June 2011, it sent representatives to Pax Europa's counter-jihadist conference in Stuttgard.
It has partnered with the Welsh Defence League, Scottish Defence League, and Ulster Defence League, none of which had the same success as their English counterpart. The Scottish Defence League retained secret links with the BNP, although in Scotland, it was difficult to bridge sectarian divisions between rival football firms. Sectarianism was also a major issue for the Ulster Defence League, which decided against holding any demonstrations in Northern Ireland itself. The Welsh Defence League faced divisions between its contingent from Swansea, some of whom were former members of Combat 18, and the Casuals United-contingent from Cardiff. After a BBC Wales investigation into the group revealed that a number of its members had neo-Nazi beliefs, in 2011 it was shut down and replaced by the Welsh Casuals. The EDL also established links to the Danish Defence League, which established 10 chapters within its first year of operation. However recent attempts to establish a presence in Denmark and the Netherlands have failed to attract support and were respectively described as "a humiliation" and as "a damp squib". The Norwegian Defence League (NDL) is a sister organisation of the EDL. There are strong connections between the two organisations, and the leadership of the EDL is also actively involved in the leadership of NDL. Members of the NDL have on several occasions travelled to England to participate in EDL protests.
Membership and support
The EDL's size has been difficult to gauge. It has no official system of membership, and thus no membership list. Pilkington argued that the EDL's active membership, meaning those who attended its rallies and events, peaked between January and April 2010, when national demonstrations could accrue 2000 people, but by the end of that year this had declined to between 800 and 1000. By 2012, the group's national demonstrations were typically only attracting between 300 to 700 people. In 2011, Bartlett and Littler estimated that between 25,000 and 35,000 people were active EDL members, the highest concentration being in Greater London. In July 2010, the EDL had 22,000 Facebook followers; following the 2013 killing of Lee Rigby this reached 160,000, and as of February 2015 had risen further to 184,000. Its Facebook following was smaller than that of its rival, Britain First; in 2015, when the EDL had 181,000 followers, Britain First had 816,000.
Pilkington noted a "high turnover in the movement", while Winlow, Hall, and Treadwell observed that members "drift in and out of its activities". Many of the EDL's supporters did not attend its street protests and were called "armchair warriors" by the group. Researchers found many supporters did not attend demonstrations because they feared violence, arrest, and the loss of employment, while many EDL women and older men saw demonstrations as primarily being events for young men. Involvement with the EDL could bring problems for its members which would dissuade their ongoing involvement; this included financial costs, the loss of friends, potential police scrutiny, and the restrictions it placed on their time. Various members described losing friendships and family relationships because of their involvement in the EDL, while others concealed their involvement out of a fear that they would lose their job. Some expressed fears that social services would take their children into foster care if their EDL membership was known, or that they would be the target of violence from anti-fascists and Muslims.
Profile of members
Most EDL members were young, working-class, white men. The EDL united three main constituencies: football hooligans, longstanding far-right activists, and a range of socio-economically marginalised people. Copsey noted that "beyond their antagonism towards Islam, there is no ideology that binds this ragbag coalition together", and that the EDL was therefore always susceptible to fracture. For most EDL members, this was the first time that they had been actively involved in a political group.
— Political scientist Joel Busher on his fieldwork among the EDL grassroots
On the basis of her ethnographic research among the EDL, Pilkington found that 74% of her respondents were under 35, in contrast to the older support base of the BNP and UKIP. 77% were male to 23% female. A recurring joke among the EDL membership was that the group's female supporters were mostly involved so that they could find men to engage in sexual and romantic relationships with. 51% described themselves as being "White English", and 23% as "White British". Only 6% of those she interviewed had either completed or were studying for a higher education degree; 20% had never completed secondary school-level education. 49% were unemployed, 20% were in either part-time or irregular employment, and only 11% were in full-time employment. 57% lived in social housing, in contrast to only 17.5% of the general population. Pilkington found that EDL members had rarely been raised in "stable, strong and protective environments", that accounts of sexual abuse and violence in childhood were somewhat common, and that a number had been raised by grandparents or in foster care because their own parents were unable to do so. She noted that very few regarded themselves as Christian. Pilkington also found that while all were critical of recent governments, none—barring the few neo-Nazis who attended EDL rallies but did not consider themselves members—desired a more authoritarian government, one-party state, or dictatorship.
In 2011, Bartlett and Littler surveyed 1,295 EDL Facebook supporters: 81% were male to 19% female; only 28% were over the age of thirty, and only 30% had attended either college or university. Bartlett and Littler found that EDL supporters were disproportionately unemployed. The issue that was most important to those surveyed was immigration, which they ranked higher than Islamic extremism. 34% voted for the BNP, 14% for UKIP, 14% for the Conservatives, and 9% for Labour. When asked to rank their three most important personal values, 36% said security, 34% said strong government, 30% said rule of law, and 26% said individual freedom. The surveyed EDL supporters also displayed significantly higher than average levels of distrust in the government, police, and judiciary.
Additional research by Matthew Goodwin, David Cutts, and Laurence Janta-Lupinski drew upon the data gathered by YouGov in an October 2012 survey. This compared 82 people who were members or were interested in joining and 298 "sympathisers" who agreed with the EDL's values but did not wish to join. Their research found "sympathisers" tended to be "older men, have low education levels, are skilled workers, read right-wing tabloid newspapers and support right-wing parties at elections", but that they were not "disproportionately more likely to be unemployed or live in social housing" than the broader population. Conversely, members and those wanting to join displayed "greater financial insecurity" and were more likely than average to be unemployed or in part-time employment, and more likely than average to live in social housing, rely on state benefits, and have no educational qualifications.
— Ethnographer Hilary Pilkington on her fieldwork among the EDL grassroots
Political scientists found that victimhood was "the central formulating point for the EDL's collective identity", with EDL members believing in "a creeping prejudice against the white heterosexual working class". The political scientist Alexander Oaten suggested that from its beginnings, the EDL had an "obsession with the cult of victimhood".
EDL members persistently regarded themselves as second-class citizens. Every EDL member Pilkington encountered believed the British state prioritised the needs of others—especially immigrants and Muslims—over those of themselves and gave ethnic minorities preferential treatment. Various members cited personal experiences where they believed that this had been the case. Members frequently referenced incidents of racist abuse, bullying, violence, and murder against white British people which they felt went under-reported or inappropriately punished. The most cited example was the 2004 murder of Kriss Donald, a racist attack committed by Pakistani men on a white teenager. They also saw this two-tiered system in their perception that ethnic minorities were encouraged to display their own cultural symbols while the white English were not, citing examples in which their display of St George's flag had been censured amid accusations of racism.
Most of the EDL members whom Busher encountered "had a highly binary interpretation of the world, seeing themselves as engaged in a millennial struggle between good and evil – an existential fight for the future of their country and culture." He noted that most activists rarely or never presented this struggle in terms of biological race, even in contexts where they expressed anti-foreigner and anti-migrant sentiments. Both Busher and Pilkington encountered EDL members who came to the group from other sectors of the far-right and who claimed their views moderated as a result. Busher suggested that this might be because the EDL ideology's shifted some individual's hostility from being directed at non-white Britons broadly toward Muslims specifically. At the same time, he noted that as the EDL fragmented, members of some of its splinter groups adopted increasingly extreme white power views.
Many EDL members distances themselves from the term "far-right" and were frustrated that they were regularly categorised as such; they similarly did not identify themselves as being "racist". EDL members often placed great importance on being working-class and displayed clear bonds with their local communities. Many cited coming from families who were Labour voters and sometimes trade unionists, but also expressed anger at Labour, regarding it as the party of multiculturalism, political correctness, and mass immigration. Among EDL members, there was much talk of "stupid lefties" who were believed to hate the white working class. Winlow, Hall, and Treadwell observed that in the build-up to the 2015 general election, most of their EDL contacts intended to vote UKIP.
Winlow, Hall, and Treadwell argued that the EDL's growth among the white working-class reflected how this sector of society—which had predominantly aligned with the political left during the twentieth century—had increasingly shifted to the far-right in the early twenty-first century. These sociologists attributed this to several changes within the mainstream British left since the 1990s: following the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, Britain's mainstream left had ceased talking about regulating capitalism, Tony Blair's New Labour project had shifted Labour's focus from its traditional working-class base towards middle-class swing voters, and middle-class leftist politicians had increasingly come to regard white working-class cultural values as an embarrassment. Britain's white working-classes increasingly felt that the mainstream left was rejecting them in favour of cultural minorities. They believed that public policy increasingly favoured minorities—whether they be LGBT people, ethnic minorities, or religious minorities—by using affirmative action employment, drives to "diversify" workforces, or favourable media coverage, and that the state had encouraged these groups to present themselves as victims. EDL supporters believed that the heterosexual white working class were left as the only cultural group in the UK that lacked vocal political representation.
At the same time, economic shifts had seen traditional working-class jobs increasingly replaced by low-grade service sector jobs, which were non-unionised and often part time, for instance on zero hour contracts; EDL members were aware of this economic shift, believing that their parents and grandparents' generations had had a better quality of life. According to Winlow, Hall and Treadwell, it was the resulting "background of broadly felt anger and frustration" among the white working class, a "sense of disempowerment, abandonment and growing irrelevance", from which the EDL developed. The EDL provided these working-class individuals with "a very basic means of understanding their frustrations", pointing the finger of blame for their economic insecurity and sense of cultural marginalisation at Muslims and immigrants. They cautioned that unless the left succeeded in reattaching itself to the white working-class—and in doing so ceasing to become "lost in identity politics and dominated by right-on metropolitan liberals" who did nothing to improve the economic life of working class people—then the UK would enter a period dominated by the political right.
Meadowcroft and Morrow suggested that the EDL overcame the collective action problem by offering its members "access to violent conflict, increased self-worth and group solidarity". They argued that for many working-class young men who have "little meaning or cause for pride" in their lives, membership of the EDL allows them to "reimagine" themselves as "heroic freedom fighters" battling to save their nation from its fundamental enemy, Islam, "thereby bolstering their sense of self-worth." In addition, they argued that EDL membership gave individuals a sense of group identity and community which they might otherwise be lacking, citing various examples of members who described their local division as being like a family.
Reception and impact
The EDL represented "the biggest populist street movement in a generation" in Britain, reviving a tradition of far-right street protests that had been largely dormant during the 2000s. The political scientists Matthew J. Goodwin, David Cutts, and Laurence Janta-Lipinski suggested that from 2009 to 2013, it represented "the most significant anti-Islam movement in Europe". In 2011, James Treadwell and Jon Garland described the EDL as "one of the most notable political developments of the past few years", while in 2013, the political scientist Julian Richards stated that the EDL had been "one of the more intriguing developments on the Far Right in recent years".
Although the majority of the British population did not share all of the EDL's views on Islam, the group's rhetoric resonated with and fed into broader animosity towards Muslims in British society. The 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey found that 55% would be bothered by having a mosque built in their street, while a 2011 survey found 48% of UK citizens agreeing with the statement that Islam was "a religion of intolerance". Various commentators attributed this sentiment to elements of the tabloid media, such as the Daily Mail, The Sun, and the Daily Star. The EDL itself faced derision from much of the mainstream media, with EDL members expressing anger at how they felt the mainstream media misrepresented them by, for instance, interviewing those members at demonstrations who were evidently drunk or unarticulate. Those outside the EDL typically perceived the group as being fascist, racist, or mindlessly violent. A 2012 poll by Extremis and YouGov found that only a third of those surveyed had heard of the EDL, and that of those who had, only 11% would consider joining. Of that third, 74% considered the group racist.
The government regarded the EDL as a major threat to societal cohesion and integration, and there were fears that the group sought to spark racial-aggravated urban disturbances akin to those of 2001. In 2009, the UK Communities Secretary John Denham condemned the EDL and compared its tactics to those used by the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. In 2010, the Conservative Party leader—and subsequent Prime Minister—David Cameron described the EDL as "terrible people", adding that "if we needed to ban them, we would". In 2010, the Association of Pakistani Lawyers asked the government to do so, although the latter declined. Copsey noted because the EDL did not openly glorify terrorism it could not be proscribed under Britain's counter-terrorism legislation and that if banned, it would soon be replaced by a similar group. Police reported that EDL activities hampered their own counter-terror operations among British Muslim communities.
Foremost among the counter-protesters at EDL events was Unite Against Fascism (UAF), who mirrored the tactics used by the Anti-Nazi League in the 1970s. Dominated by the Socialist Workers Party, the UAF understood the EDL through a largely Marxist interpretation. The UAF believed in opposing the EDL at every juncture so as to demoralise its members; the UAF's common chant was "Fascist scum off our streets". Political scientists noted that this confrontational approach gave the EDL exactly what it wanted, and that it could contribute to further radicalisation on all sides.
Another anti-fascist group, Hope not Hate, differed in not believing that every EDL rally must meet forceful opposition. It argued that anti-fascists should adapt their tactics to the wishes of local community members in a given area, and emphasised bringing together different religious and ethnic groups in peaceful protest. Hope not Hate also foregrounded the need to establish long-term strategies to counter the EDL and far-right politics, focusing on reconnecting disenfranchised people with the established political process. Online, various leftist websites played a role in monitoring the EDL's activities.
Britain's Islamic community was divided on how to respond to the EDL; some Muslims joined UAF counter-protests, although other Islamic voices called for Muslims to avoid the protests altogether. Another response was the formation of the Muslim Defence League in 2010, the stated purpose of which was to oppose Islamophobia and counter misinformation about Islam. In various instances, it supported UAF counter-protests. In 2013, six Islamists pleaded guilty to plotting a bomb and gun attack on an EDL march in Dewsbury. Other religious communities also responded to the EDL. A group called Sikhs Against the EDL was formed in response to the involvement of some Sikhs in the organisation, while the Board of Deputies of British Jews expressed disappointment at the formation of the EDL Jewish Division.
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