Last weekend, Tony Brett, a Liberal Democrat councillor in Oxford and the city’s deputy lord mayor, found what he called a “disgraceful rabble” of people climbing on the city’s main war memorial — squashing, he said, the flowers that mourners had placed there, then trying to remove half of them altogether and “jeering” other visitors as they paid their respects. That day, the memorial was supposed to be the scene of a wreath-laying by the far-Right, racist English Defence League. But neither Mr Brett, nor a local newspaper reporter on the scene, saw any sign of any EDL presence. All the hate Mr Brett said came from the self-appointed opponents of bigotry, a group called Unite Against Fascism (UAF). “It seemed to me they were doing exactly the kind of thing they were supposed to be protesting against,” said Mr Brett. “I will absolutely not support any hint of racism, Islamophobia or any other form of hate, be it from the EDL or any other group. That day I saw it from another group.” The Oxford branch of UAF said its members climbed on the memorial at the request of a photographer. “The EDL’s use of war memorials is an offence to all those who died fighting fascism,” it said in a statement. Since the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby last month, there have reportedly been at least 107 arrests during BNP, EDL and UAF demonstrations. At least 69 of those arrested, just under two thirds, were anti-fascist demonstrators, at least 58 of them UAF.
Prominent campaigners such as the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell accuse UAF of a selective approach to bigotry. “UAF commendably opposes the BNP and EDL but it is silent about Islamist fascists who promote anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism and sectarian attacks on non-extremist Muslims,” said Mr Tatchell. “It is time the UAF campaigned against the Islamist far Right as well as against the EDL and BNP far Right.”
One reason why UAF will not campaign against Islamist extremists is that one of its own vice-chairmen, Azad Ali, is one. Mr Ali is also community affairs coordinator of the Islamic Forum of Europe, a Muslim supremacist group dedicated to changing “the very infrastructure of society, its institutions, its culture, its political order and its creed from ignorance to Islam”. Mr Ali has written on his blog of his “love” for Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda cleric closely linked to many terrorist plots, including the September 11 attacks, and used to attend talks by Abu Qatada, the extremist cleric whom Britain is seeking to deport. He has described al-Qaeda as a “myth” and denied that the Mumbai attacks were terrorism. On his blog, he also advocated the killing of British troops in Iraq. He sued a newspaper for reporting that he had said this, and lost.
The racist Right thrives on two things: publicity and the politics of victimhood. The mob outrage practised by UAF gets the fascists more of both. Mr Brett added: “It just antagonises the situation. The way to deal with this stuff is not to fight it aggressively. That’s exactly what they want you to do.” Nobody has denied that there has been an increase in tensions since the murder of Drummer Rigby. The danger is that by exaggerating it, and by the politics of confrontation, supposedly anti-racist groups fuel the very division, polarisation and tension they are supposed to counter.