This weekend saw a resurgent far right nationalist movement mobilise across the country on a largely pro-forces and anti-Islam platform. It is an incredibly divisive and dangerous message of schism which our elected officials have been complacent towards by allowing to take-root so significantly.
EDL supporters outside Whitehall giving the Nazi salute this weekend
My activism against the far right English Defence League (EDL) has been well charted in the public domain. My BBC1 debate with Tommy Robinson last year lead to face-to-face private discussions over a meal. No stone was left unturned in those three hours and despite being left dumbfounded and contemplating whether I had been "reading a different Quran" to others, since coming out of prison he has redoubled his efforts. Woolwich has resulted in a fivefold increase in support for his group and a tenfold increase in anti-Muslim attacks and incidents. Our paths crossed again over the May Bank Holiday weekend in a heated clash of words on the backstreets of Newcastle ahead of the EDL demonstration last Saturday, which I estimate was at least 7,000 strong; notably four times the official estimates from Northumbria Police. In light of the subsequent public reaction to our meeting, and the disappointing response from some prominent commentators on the left, my statement on social media dealt with the myths, clarified that 'hug' and being 'papped'.
Despite that picture and the story printed in the Sunday Mirror, there is a human and personal side to this war of wills which many forget about. It is as much my faith as it is my sincere belief, that we cannot elevate, educate or enlighten those on the far right by demonising them, denying them a platform to engage or by attempting to crush them. There must be positive dialogue - albeit challenging and highly critical - to bring about change. We must move towards a peaceful settlement founded on tolerance and ultimately love for our fellow man and our communities, if we ever wish to hope to improve our condition.
As sickening and heinous as the killing of Lee Rigby has been, it is an utter disservice to his memory, to our forces and to his family, for the far right to be allowed to exploit this situation for their own ends. The societal impact and creation of rifts of intolerance makes it arguably more abhorrent than the disrespect shown to those passing through Wootton Bassett. The move by Help for Heroes and the statement from founder Bryn Parry to refuse donations from Tommy Robinson and the EDL has been a severe blow to the imprimatur of faux-credibility of far right nationalist extremists and their everyman Englishman delusion. They have not, and remain not, a friend to our forces. Woolwich must not be allowed to become a trigger moment for the EDL and other far right groups to mobilise their forces against the perceived common enemy of Islam, an 'identified enemy' in a 'war' as the leader of the far right recently described. This must be considered by some distance as equally extreme and as equally dangerous rhetoric, as any coming from the mouths of those preaching hate. We now face some fundamental questions about the shape our society needs to take moving forward from this - how we balance the freedom of speech and expression, especially where it is non-violent, against the interests of the state apparatus and the need for peaceful community relations.
In the past I have certainly called for the EDL to be proscribed, I make no secret of this. Those public calls were made at a time when the Home Secretary had taken the unprecedented decision to ban extremist Muslim groups who were fomenting hate and hostility. At that time and still now, I see no argument why that should not have extended to the EDL when applicable to others. Peddling a twisted ideology based on hate, intolerance and a fundamentally flawed view of reality is always dangerous and an undeniable gateway to appalling crimes. To not have done so was to not only pander to the far right for politicking but to send a clear signal to British Muslim communities: your right to a safe, peaceful and tolerant existence in British society is not a priority interest for this government. Government paralysis over the actions of the far right will continue to result in attacks as numbers swell. It is an absurd appeasement with direct parallels to the darkest of times in the 1930s.
I worked extensively on local, regional and national programs to counter extremism and delivered findings relating to both strategic communications and community engagement at the earliest inception of the Channel program. Those of us, who have actually delivered, know what works and also what clumsy, ill-informed, knee jerk reactions can do to increase radicalisation, marginalisation and disaffection. This is not the time to move towards easy and lazy Quilliamesque Peter King McCarthyism, where they become self-appointed arbiters and gatekeepers of the acceptable and unaccepted, but rather to take the best of the learning we have, the best of what has been delivered and the exemplars of best practice.
From the drum beats it seems that our betters will be shortly deciding to lower the bar on tolerance, for the sake of the common good, against those who spread extremism and hate in our society. If it transpires that the PM and Home Secretary choose to ignore the far right at this time, it will set a dangerous precedent for the future of community relations and sends a further worrying signal - that the rise of the far right will not be opposed by our elected officials. It is a mistake we have made before and cannot afford to repeat.