I've just fallen in love with England again. I never thought it would happen, but after filming two dangerous and notorious men from Luton over the past year, I'm glad I live here. Tonight Channel 4 screens the film I shot and directed: Proud and Prejudiced.
The two men are Tommy Robinson - the founder and leader of the English Defence League - and Sayful Islam - leader of a group of fundamentalist Muslims. Both are Luton born and bred. Tommy is the manager of a local tanning shop; Sayful was a tax inspector before he gave it up to bring Islam to the streets of Britain.
These guys are dangerous because of their ideas. Tommy believes he is fighting the creeping Islamification of his community (though he started out as only condemning Islamic Extremism) and Sayful wants democracy in the UK overthrown and replaced by Sharia Law.
Both know how to create media events: Sayful's troupe burnt poppies on remembrance day and Tommy closed down the City Of London as the EDL marched on Tower Hamlets with him dressed as a Rabbi (more of that later).
The reality of what they are doing has serious consequences. Communities feel deeply threatened and a wedge of separation is locking community against community. Imagine the police locking down your town centre and a thousand or so people turning up, most drunk, and shouting "scum, scum, scum", while Sayful and his guys are whipping up outrage by deliberately provoking people. "We just want to wake people up from their slumber," he says. Maybe. Both want England to be a mirror image of themselves.
We filmed the notorious leader of the EDL on a drunken night out in Luton Town centre before he disguised himself as a Rabbi to get through a cordon of thousands of police at the edge of Tower Hamlets. Tommy was on bail for head butting what he believed to be a National Front racist trying to usurp his leadership of the EDL. The bail conditions meant he couldn't give speeches at EDL demos, write emails on behalf of the EDL. He says they were political bail conditions, he has a point there.
He couldn't give his speech without being arrested, so he bought a £20 beard and hat and went in disguise, it was like something out if an Ealing comedy. When he jumped the stage and ripped off the Rabbi disguise, giving his speech, the police tried to rush in. He got away with us in tow, escaping finally on a double decker bus with a bus ticket costing £2:20. Only in England, only in England. Funny as this might have been, the population of Tower hamlets felt under threat that day and the anger and hatred meted out by the EDL was palpable.
A month later, Sayful's group was banned by Theresa May. The group has been banned a number of times and they just re-appear under a different name.
But this time the authorities got serious. With May banning Muslims Against Crusades, a group called the United Umah (undoubtedly the same people) declared a static demonstration outside the American Embassy in London. About 30 people turned up. I was told that a policeman warned them not to mention America. One of them started talking about drone bombing. How civilians were being killed. How America thinks it can just take out anyone in the world at anytime. The police, heavily outnumbering the protestors moved in and arrested them all. Now they are on bail. If charged they could face prosecution with 10 years maximum sentence. Are these guys terrorists? I don't think so. Their Jihad is a Jihad of words. Their anger at UK foreign policy is understandable, in my view.
What I've learnt from filming Tommy and Sayful is that we should not suppress them. That serves nothing; it just puts a pressure cooker on things that, as Tommy Robinson says, "one day will just blow up". Democracy is messy. It's expensive - policing these people is costing millions. Maybe we just have to put up with a whole bunch of stuff that is annoying, distasteful (maybe), offensive (definitely). That's Democracy. That's freedom.
I'm glad Britain is, in the end, tolerant and this needs to be protected. By all means confront words with words, ideas with ideas, but I don't think we can solve anything by banning, restricting or arresting these people. There needs to be a debate going on properly in government about the feelings that are so acute in the film. It's a debate that's not happening.
Too hot? Maybe so. But if its not debated, and seen to be debated, it will just get hotter methinks.
Proud and Prejudiced is showing tonight on Channel 4 at 10 am. It will be on 4OD soon after.
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