Last Monday, it was reported that a gang of around 25 EDL members attacked a bookstall in Birmingham which was run by the local Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, threatening and manhandling the stall owners. This latest example of street thuggery shows us that the EDL is not only growing in size, but is also succeeding in spreading its simplistic and bigoted views about Muslims in Britain.
As yet, the EDL has not responded to the accusation, and has ignored my requests for any comments which, admittedly, are unlikely to veer from their stock responses to similar incidents. EDL reactions to incidents like this usually take one of four forms: it condemns all violence and promote peaceful demonstrations; it has no connection with the perpetrators; the claims of violence have been overblown by a hostile leftist media; the EDL stands only against radical Islam and does not target ordinary Muslims. Seeing as a picture from the stall shows men wearing EDL hooded jumpers, we can confidently rule out the second of these, and if the group does indeed decide to release a statement on the events in Birmingham, it is likely to be a mix of the other three.
This is not the first such accusation leveled at the EDL, and Youtube is replete with videos showing EDL rallies descending into violence and bigoted chanting. In one of the more distressing examples of this, a group of EDL members marching in a demonstration in Leicester last October laid siege to a fast food restaurant, breaking windows and threatening its shell-shocked South-Asian customers, which included small children.
Putting aside for now the claims of non-violence made by the EDL leadership (which are themselves highly dubious), it is the leadership's that they only stand against radical Islam instead of ordinary Muslims, along with their method of street politics born out of football firm hooliganism and BNP/neo-Nazi marches that is worth further examination. Indeed, the two are interlinked: the already specious claims of making a distinction between extremists and the majority of ordinary Muslims are hugely undermined by the actions of their foot soldiers. Addressing the problem of radical Islam through street politics alone simply will not work; it is impossible to reduce such a complex and multifaceted issue to a few slogans and chants. As the EDL has also demonstrated, this approach blurs the lines between violence and non-violence, as well as bigotry and genuine grievance.
Although the EDL's intimidation and violence is indefensible no matter who their victims are, the fact that its members attacked an Ahmadiyya stall adds yet another layer of absurdity to the group's image. Were they to have had any real knowledge about this issue, they would know that the Ahmadiyya are derided by the very Islamist extremists that the EDL claims to stand against. The sect differs from the majority of Muslims in that they do not accept Mohammed as the final prophet; their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (d. 1908), also claimed prophethood, but sought to revive Islam rather than bring any new laws. This has made them targets of extremists in South-Asia and particularly in Pakistan where, encouraged by the Islamist political party the Jamaat e-Islami, they regularly murder and kidnap members of the group.
Incidentally, this may also explain the lack of any serious condemnation of last week's attack by what are usually vocal Islamic pressure groups such as the Jamaat e-Islami influenced Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), who in 2003 wrote a letter of complaint to the BBC after a news bulletin which covered the Ahmadi annual convention. Written by their then Press Secretary Inayat Bunglawala, the letter admonished the BBC both for having the temerity to refer to Ahmadis as Muslims and for even bothering to cover the event.
Worryingly, the EDL's irrational suspicion of Britain's Muslims is not the sole preserve of the white far-right, and this is perhaps best demonstrated by the ethnic make-up of EDL rallies. While it is predominantly made up of the white working class, there are enough black and non-Muslim Asian attendees to make one question if indeed this is a neo-Nazi, white-supremacist movement. Last year, I travelled to Luton during one of the EDL's largest protests to see them in action for myself, and was struck by what I saw. Besides the startling amount of hard drug use (the main square was lined with groups of young men digging furiously through large plastic bags of cocaine and various different forms of ecstasy), I was surprised by the amount of non-white people I saw in the crowd, and made a point to speak to as many as possible.
Almost invariably, after asking them how a minority could attend a rally apparently organised by British National Party sympathisers and former members, the response they gave me was "look around you, I'm not the only one mate!" I also asked them why the felt the desire to show solidarity with the EDL, and it became clear to me that, for them, Anjem Choudhry and his gang of thugs (who the EDL originally emerged as a response to) were a fair representation of the majority of British Muslims.
The reasons for this flawed perception are many, and along with the EDL's role in spreading conspiracy theories and paranoia, chief among these is the tabloid media's depiction of Islam in Britain. In 2009, the anti-extremist think tank, Quilliam, pointed out that the Daily Express had regularly referred Choudhry as a Muslim leader, and was grossly over-exaggerating the influence and size of his group, the now banned al-Muhajiroun. In reality their numbers are likely to be in the low hundreds and appear to be decreasing since the ban, and the Express and others have a responsibility to report these issues accurately.
The EDL must realise that their scatter-gun approach to radical Islam and the street tactics they use to show their anger are doing serious harm to communal relations in Britain. They are poisoning the minds of angry young men, and as the events in Oslo earlier this year demonstrated, this can have severe consequences. If they genuinely want to help, they must cease their country-wide marches and close up shop.