On Saturday (6th February), PEGIDA - an abbreviation for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident - will hold its first ever rally in Birmingham.
With no more than 300 people estimated to attend and having been kept away from the city centre, protestors will undertake a 'silent march' near Birmingham International train station. Led by the former leader of the English Defence League (EDL), Tommy Robinson, the message of the protest will be 'Save our Country, Save our Culture, Save our Future'. Don't be fooled however by the use of 'Our'. Far from being inclusive of Birmingham's contemporary diversity, the far-right, counter-jihad movement's message will be one of division and hate.
While undoubtedly unwelcome, the rally does raise some interesting issues.
First is the arrival of PEGIDA to Britain. German in origin, the movement began in Dresden in 2014 where it organised 'evening strolls' that sought to bring people together who were concerned about the perceived Islamification of Germany and the impact immigration was having on German culture. Growing rapidly, the strolls soon became mass rallies; its rally the day after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015 attracting an estimated 40,000 people in Dresden alone. Carrying banners that read "PEGIDA=CHARLIE", the rally was angrily condemned by French caricaturists who disagreed with PEGIDA's message.
That message was voiced by one of the speakers at the rally, Katrin Oertel. As she put it:
"We aren't radicals or fanatics, we are a citizen's movement. Fanatical Islam has brought terror to Europe"
What is interesting is that in Germany at least, those attending PEGIDA's rallies were indeed ordinary citizens. Far from the preserve of the traditional far-right, PEGIDA was attracting support from those within the middle-classes that had previously been politically inactive. Worryingly, PEGIDA was seen to afford them the opportunity to articulate concerns they felt unable to elsewhere. It is unlikely that a similar demographic will attend PEGIDA's rally in Birmingham.
More pertinent to Birmingham is the pan-European branding of PEGIDA behind which typically disparate and isolated groups and movements that propagate anti-Islam and anti-immigration ideologies are not only likely to come together but so too present themselves as having greater support than they realistically do. Given PEGIDA has already exported itself to organise rallies in Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Spain and Switzerland among others, a more organised and strategic counter-jihad movement is a cause for concern.
Second is the re-emergence of Tommy Robinson. Just over two years ago, Robinson appeared to have undergone a Damscene conversion. Quitting the EDL, BBC1's 'Quitting the EDL: When Tommy Met Mo' presented him as a victim of circumstance, someone who despite years of aggressively ranting about Islam and Muslims in Britain was in fact little more than misunderstood man. Similar was true a few weeks earlier when Robinson sat alongside the Quilliam Foundation's Maajid Nawaz. An impassioned figure, Nawaz claimed Robinson's decision to quit the EDL was a "very positive change for the United Kingdom...a very proud moment for Quilliam".
All of it was of course disingenuous nonsense. Robinson never distanced himself from the insidious ideology he espoused via the EDL nor did he refute any of the myths he perpetuated about Islam and Muslims; about mosques, shariah law, halal meat, Muslim women and grooming among others. As I wrote at the time, those who fawned over Robinson's bad-boy-turned-good resurrection presented him as a new Messiah for the common and everyday man and woman in today's Britain. If so, then Robinson's appearance at the rally in Birmingham on Saturday will be his Second Coming.
Finally, the response to the rally once again highlights Birmingham's ability to resist those who try and promote division and disharmony in the city. In this respect, Birmingham has a proud history. Take for instance Eric Clapton's concert at the Birmingham Odeon in 1976 where he is alleged to have made a number of explicitly racist rants. In response, local musicians and political activists got together and formed the Rock Against Racism movement that quickly arranged a number of small gigs that saw black reggae artists play alongside white punks. One of these was Birmingham's Steel Pulse. Formed in Handsworth, the band's first major label release - 'Ku Klux Klan' - confronted racism head-on.
A poignant example occurred in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. With tensions rising across the city following the deaths of three men protecting their community's businesses from looters, things were turned on their head when one of the grieving fathers, Tariq Jahan, publicly appealed for calm just hours after his son was killed. As he put it:
"I believe that people can stay calm, if you look around here there are black, brown, white and yellow people. They are all my community. We live together and we can stay together"
That spirit of unity can be seen in Birmingham's response to PEGIDA. Shortly after the rally was announced, I joined more than 70 community leaders, politicians, academics and faith representatives from across the city to put my name to the Unity Statement. Recognising Birmingham's proud tradition of being a city where people from vastly different backgrounds could live together harmoniously, Birmingham's residents were asked to 'choose hope' over hate by adding their names to the statement. To do so, click here. More information about the 'Choose Hope' campaign including information about the Unity Celebration taking place at Birmingham Central Mosque this Friday (5 February) can be obtained by following @itsourbrum on Twitter.
Like the National Front, British National Party and EDL before it, PEGIDA will fail in its attempt to spread an insidious message of hate that seeks to pit community against community. Birmingham is too strong and united for that.Suggest a correction