Before the renewed wave of anti-Muslim bile after the horrendous murder of Lee Rigby, the EDL seemed to be staring into the abyss. Their rallies attracted increasingly derisory turnouts, notable for punch-ups between drunk racists: impressive shows of force by anti-racists in Walthamstow and elsewhere humiliated them.
But last week, their leader – who operates under the pseudonym “Tommy Robinson”– was treated to a reprehensibly soft interview on BBC’s Today programme: the activities and beliefs of Robinson and his gangs were barely scrutinised. Such appearances do nothing but help legitimise racism, treating it as just another valid political perspective that can be calmly engaged and debated with just like any other set of beliefs. A bunch of thuggish racists are running rings around the Establishment. In the Daily Telegraph, its former editor Charles Moore defends the EDL as “merely reactive”, as non-violent, as “the instinctive reaction of elements of an indigenous working class which rightly perceives itself [as] marginalised by authority, whereas Muslim groups are subsidised and excused by it”. Allegations of racism or fascism “are not strictly accurate”, he reassures us. Tommy Robinson himself demands that Muslims follow British law: odd from someone who struggles with the same advice, having served a 12-month prison sentence for assaulting an off-duty police officer who tried to stop a domestic incident with his partner, as well as convictions for “threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour.” He once warned “every single Muslim watching” that the “Islamic community” would face “the full force of the English Defence League” if any British citizen was hurt or killed. Here are Moore’s non-racist, non-violent “reactive” band.
Anti-Muslim prejudice, however, remains worryingly widespread. Over a third of Britons think they pose a serious threat to democracy; and while the number who believe Muslims are compatible with the “British way of life” has increased, just one in three believe that. The EDL threat has to be taken seriously, but it needs careful thought. The truth is the EDL are simply a striking symptom of a society where anti-Muslim bigotry is acceptable: it passes the “dinner table test”, as Tory minister Sayeeda Warsi has put it. Now it’s Muslims; once it was Irish people who faced racist scapegoating after terrorist attacks: a twisted irony, then, that Tommy Robinson is himself the son of Irish immigrant parents. But this prejudice is not confined to the right. Some on the left seem to believe defending Muslims is somehow a betrayal of secularism. Studies show newspapers routinely portray Muslims in a negative light. And so here is the dark truth. After a month in which the EDL have enjoyed a resurgence; Muslims abused on the streets and online; mosques firebombed – all those who have fanned bigotry, take responsibility, because these thugs are your children.