Is a storm brewing in Europe?

BILLY BRIGGS
November 28, 2010

On platform one at Bolton train station in England a mob of about 100 men
punch the air in unison as a chant – “Muslim bombers, off our streets!” –
goes up. Their voices echo loudly, and as more men suddenly appear, startled
passengers move aside. The protesters wave St George’s Cross flags – the red
and white English national emblem – and raise placards. Some wear
balaclavas, others black-hooded tops. There is an air of menace.

These are some of the most violent football hooligans in Britain and today
they have joined in an unprecedented show of strength. Standing shoulder to
shoulder are notorious gangs such as Cardiff City’s Soul Crew, Bolton
Wanderers’ Cuckoo Boys and Luton Town’s Men In Gear: a remarkable gathering
given that on a match day these men would be fighting each other. But today
they are not here for football; it is politics that has drawn them. Their
destination is Manchester to support a protest by the newly formed English
Defence League.

The police are here in force, too. “Take that mask off,” barks a sergeant to
one young man. The man does so immediately but retorts: “Why are they
allowed to wear burqas in public but we’re not allowed to cover our faces?”
The sergeant snaps back: ”Just do what you’re told.”

A man with a West Country accent standing next to me says: “It’s always the
fxxxxx’ same these days. One rule for them and another for us. I’m sick of
this fxxxxx’ country.” He draws on a cigarette before flicking it to the
ground in disgust. He starts to complain again, but when the public address
system announces the arrival of the train to Manchester Piccadilly, he
raises his hands above his head and starts another football favourite: “Rule
Britannia, Britannia rules the waves …”

His companions join in singing, and as the train comes to a halt beside the
platform the crowd surges forward. The carriages are almost full, so the men
pack into aisles followed by police speaking into radios. A group of young
men drinking beer at a table eye the protesters warily, but one protester
wearing a baseball cap notices their fear and reassures them. “It’s all
right lads, nothing to worry about. We’re protesting against radical Islam.
Come and join us,” he says, and as the train draws nearer to Manchester, the
singing starts again. “Eng-e-land, Eng-e-land, Eng-e-land …” the men sing
rowdily. The English Defence League is in town.

A ready-made army?

The league seemed to spring from nowhere in 2009, but since its formation
the far-right movement has held major protests in nearly all of Britain’s
cities. Although it claims to be a peaceful group, violence has erupted at
most league demonstrations, with its supporters fighting on the streets
against police, Muslim youths and a group called Unite Against Fascism, an
umbrella organisation consisting mainly of students and trade unionists and
formed in 2003 to oppose the far-right. During the fighting hundreds of
people have been arrested, weapons have been seized and city centres have
been brought to a standstill.

Britain has not witnessed such street violence for many years and there are
growing fears that the league – despite its official multiracial stance –
has become a ready-made army for neo-Nazis who for years have operated
underground and that tensions will erupt resulting in major disorder.

All mainstream political parties in Britain have criticised the league,
including John Denham, the former communities secretary, who compared the
group to Oswald Mosley’s Union of British Fascists, which ran amok in London
during the 1930s.

Tinderbox northern towns such as Bradford and Oldham – which witnessed race
riots in 2001 – have been among the league’s targets this year and a
countrywide police team set up to combat domestic extremism, the National
Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, has been investigating the movement.

I had met members of the league for the first time in a derelict building in
Luton, near London, three weeks before the Manchester rally. They had agreed
to talk on the condition that I did not identify them. Eleven men turned up.
All wore balaclavas and most had black league hoodies with ”Luton
Division” on the back. A man using the pseudonym Tommy Robinson did most of
the talking and explained the movement’s background.

“For more than a decade now, there’s been tension in Luton between Muslim
youths and whites. We all get on fine – black, white, Indian, Chinese –
everyone does, in fact, apart from some Muslim youths who’ve become
extremely radicalised since the first Gulf War. Preachers of hate such as
Anjem Choudary have been recruiting for radical Islamist groups in Luton for
years. Our government does nothing, so we decided we’d start protesting
against radical Islam, and it grew from there,” he said.

With Islam Europe’s fastest-growing religion – Muslim populations are
projected to expand rapidly in coming decades – the group’s fear that
traditional British culture is under threat have been exacerbated.

Robinson could barely conceal his anger as he described radical Muslims
protesting as the Royal Anglican regiment paraded through the town on its
return from Afghanistan in May 2009. Following the incident, he and others
set up a group called United People of Luton. After linking up with a
Birmingham-based group called British Citizens Against Muslim Extremists and
a group calling itself Casuals United, they realised there was potential for
a national movement. Robinson said members wore balaclavas to protect their
identities because league members had been targeted by Muslim extremists.

But although the league publicly espouses peaceful protest, there is growing
concern over its secrecy and quasi-paramilitary appearance – as well as some
of its membership. According to the international anti-fascist magazine
Searchlight, far-right British National Party activists and other fascist
extremists are at the core of the league. The publication’s allegations have
been backed by a former league member called Paul Ray who claimed that the
group had been hijacked by the anti-immigration British National Party.

Then there is Casuals United. The group came to the fore about the time the
English Defence League was formed. An unprecedented alliance of football
hooligans, it was the brainchild of Jeff Marsh, a member of Cardiff City’s
Soul Crew who has been convicted three times for violent offences. This
included a two-year jail sentence for stabbing Manchester United fans. Marsh
has now taken a back seat, so the public face of Casuals United is fellow
Welshman and Soul Crew member Mickey Smith.

Casuals United makes full use of modern communications and uses social
networking websites such as Facebook to organise the 50 or so gangs that
have been recruiting members around Britain. Other neo-Nazi groups,
including the British People’s Party and the British Freedom Fighters, have
also participated in league protests, despite their opposition to the
league’s multiracial position.

A ‘perfect storm’?

The high command of the league is much more astute than its foot soldiers,
however, and distances itself from violence. In a Covent Garden pub I meet a
computer expert from London called Alan Lake who runs a website called Four
Freedoms. Last summer he contacted the league and offered to fund and advise
the movement.

His aim, he says, is to unite the “thinkers” and those prepared to take to
the streets. He describes this marriage as “the perfect storm coming
together,” adding that street violence is not desirable but perhaps
inevitable. “There are issues when you are dealing with football thugs – but
what can we do?”

He strongly criticises fascist organisations, however, and says that one of
his conditions for backing the movement is that it does not associate with
far-right groups. “There are different groups infiltrating and trying to
cause rifts by one means or another, or trying to waylay the organisation to
different agendas. The intention is to exclude those groups and
individuals.”

But while some league leaders may oppose fascism, there are others who seem
to have no problem with extremism. At league protests in Swansea, Wales,
skinheads chanted British National Party slogans and raised Nazi salutes. In
Northern Ireland, according to Searchlight, loyalists have started an Ulster
Defence League, backed by the former paramilitary group the Ulster Defence
Association, while in Scotland, the hooligan Inter City Firm attached to
Rangers football club helped set up a Scottish Defence League.

At an EDL protest in the city of Leicester, the movement’s supporters pelted
police officers with bottles, cans, bricks and coins resulting in 17
arrests. One police officer suffered a broken leg.

The EDL protest garnered the largest police deployment in Leicestershire
since the miners’ strike 25 years ago. Police deployed 1,400 officers from
12 forces to deal with around 1,000 EDL supporters and a counter demo of
around 700 anti-fascists.

During the demo, the International Arts Centre Fabrika had to be evacuated,
with journalists and staff making their escape through the back entrance as
EDL protesters attempted to break into the building and smashed windows. The
Leicester Mercury, a local newspaper, reported that there were also
confrontations between the protesters and a group of Asian and black men in
the Humberstone Road area, near St Matthew’s, with pockets of fighting.

What is concerning many people in Britain is that the movement is becoming
more organised and stronger and feeding off growing Islamaphobia. With its
anti-Islam stance, the EDL has been gaining support from abroad. Pamela
Gellar, the woman leading the protest against the Islamic centre near Ground
Zero in New York, has backed the movement and EDL members were welcomed when
they flew to the US to oppose the Muslim community’s plans on the ninth
anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Leader Robinson was refused entry at JFK airport, however, and taken into
custody and flown straight back to the UK.

Support has also come from Europe and on October 30, the EDL joined forces
with the newly formed French and Dutch Defence Leagues at an event in
Amsterdam. The meeting, organised by the European Freedom Initiative, was
promoted as a demonstration for freedom and in opposition to Sharia. It was
planned to coincide with the end of Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ trial
for hate speech and inciting racism.

The fears are, however, that European cities could soon be witnessing the
widespread violence being experienced in Britain.

Right-wing group clashes with Muslims in Luton

Scores of police had to break up clashes between members of the right-wing English Defence League (EDL) and Muslims in Luton town centre. Trouble flared after Kevin Carroll, 41, lost at appeal at Luton Crown Court to overturn a conviction for using threatening behaviour at an earlier demonstration.

Up to 80 officers had to keep a group of Carroll’s supporters, chanting ‘EDL’, separate from opposition protesters. Carroll had objected to Muslim demonstrators who had shouted abuse at British soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment, during a homecoming parade in the town in March last year.

They had shouted “British soldiers go to hell” and called them “butchers of Basra” .  Carroll verbally retaliated, swearing at the protesters and singing “bin Laden’s mother is a whore”. He was charged and subsequently convicted of using threatening words and behaviour likely to to cause fear harassment and alarm. He was given a conditional discharge.

Islamic extremists pelt eggs at Muslim Baroness Warsi during Luton protest

Conservative Muslim Peer Baroness Warsi of Dewsbury has criticized a group of Islamic extremists who pelted her with eggs and shouted abuse at her during a visit in Luton. The shadow minister for community cohesion and social action had been meeting local businesses with Tory candidates when she was attacked in the street.

Up to 10 local British male protesters, believed to be members of the controversial Al Muhajiroun group, started shouting abuse at the Peer, accusing her of not being a proper Muslim and supporting the deaths of Muslims in Afghanistan. Members of the group then threw several eggs at her, with one hitting her on the side of the head and another soiling her jacket, but she was not injured.

Instead of escaping, Baroness Warsi, surrounded by colleagues and journalists, tried to argue with the group. However, the extremists were unable to engage in the discussion and simply repeatedly asked Warsi whether she was in favor of Shari’a. It is believed the protesters were from the same group of Muslims who earlier this year marred the homecoming of British soldiers from Iraq through Luton, at which occasion protesters waved placards calling them “Butchers of Basra”, “murderers” and “baby-killers”.

Clash between anti-Muslim radicals and counter protesters in Manchester

Police stood between hundreds of anti-Islam protesters and anti-racist counter-demonstrators in the English city of Manchester on Saturday, arresting 48 people in a bid to keep the peace. A group called the English Defense League, which says it opposes militant Islam, squared off against a larger group of counter-demonstrators from the group Unite Against Fascism.

Troubles also have occurred in Luton, Birmingham and London in the last few months involving a loose collection of far-right groups, including the little known English Defense League. The league rejects the fascist label, arguing that it only opposes militant Islam. But several of its supporters made Nazi salutes during Saturday’s protest.

Defense minister urges more British Muslims to join armed forces

The defence minister, Bob Ainsworth, has appealed to British Muslims to join the armed forces, saying that it was “vitally important that our army, navy and air force are reflective of the hugely diverse society in which we live”.

In an address to the Armed Forces Muslim Conference, Ainsworth said the services were a “fundamental and very positive part of British society, and that they need to be a positive part of Muslim society as well”.

His address follows last month’s Royal Anglican Regiment homecoming in Luton at which a group of Muslims protested, prompting angry scenes involving some of those who had been welcoming the return of the troops. Today there are about 390 Muslims serving across the armed forces.

Home Secretary talks to youth at Luton’s Central Mosque

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith visited Luton’s Central Mosque on Monday meeting young Muslims whom she said were playing an integral part in the fight extremism. “They were proud to be Muslims and proud to be British,” she said. Her visit to Luton came in the wake of a fatal stabbing of a young man in Bedford last Saturday evening. Asked about the prevalence of knife crime, she said: “Any knife crime is a tragedy and we need to do everything we can to counter it. “Of course people are upset and worried when something like this happens. But they’re part of the answer as well as the police.” She also spoke to Luton residents and promised more resources were being pumped into fighting crime in Bedfordshire. She visited the High Town Community Sports and Arts Centre in Concorde Street, where she took questions from police officers and residents and launched the new ‘police pledge’, a document outlining the commitments of the police to the public. After the meeting she reportedly said that extra cash was being provided to help Bedfordshire Police cut crime in the county.

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The Identity Debate: What does it mean to be British?

It is the debate on everybody’s lips – just how British are we? Last week came plans for a British Day. Then Gordon Brown spoke of ‘British jobs for British people’. As a new study demands we celebrate ‘where we live’ to combat social division, is there any way to define a nation’s values? Report by Ned Temko, Jo Revill and Amelia Hill Luton yesterday morning was bathed in early summer sunshine. A Women’s Institute stall peddled home-made cakes outside the Arndale Shopping Centre. Giggling Asian schoolgirls in full veils, or niqabs, shared benches with African immigrants and eastern Europeans. It was, on the face of it, an advert for happy multi-culturalism. But it is precisely places like this ancient English market town, now more famous for its airport, which Gordon Brown and other politicians have in mind in their fevered efforts to bind an increasingly diverse nation together with some shared sense of ‘Britishness’. Luton, by all appearances a tranquil mix of its estimated 140 different nationalities, gained unwanted notoriety after the cars used by the British-born 7/7 suicide bombers turned up in a local car park. One recent African Muslim immigrant yesterday remarked: ‘Britishness is a hazy thing. Even if we want to adopt the culture of this country, the dictates of religion remain a far clearer and more precise identity. This isn’t immigrants’ fault. It doesn’t mean anything sinister about loyalty to Britain. It’s human nature.’

British Court Rules Against Muslim Girl

Britain’s highest court ruled Wednesday that a school acted properly in refusing to allow a student to wear Muslim clothing of her choice rather than the attire permitted under school policy. Shabina Begum, now 17, last year won a Court of Appeal ruling establishing that Denbigh High School in Luton infringed on her rights by not allowing her to wear a jilbab – a long, flowing gown that covers her entire body except for her face and hands. The school, where four-fifths of the students are Muslim, allows students to wear trousers, skirts or a traditional shalwar kameez, which consists of trousers and a tunic. Girls were allowed to wear head scarves. The school, which appealed its case to the Law Lords, Britain’s highest court, argued that the jilbab posed a health and safety risk and might cause divisions among pupils, with those wearing traditional dress possibly being seen as better Muslims. Lord Justice Bingham said in the 5-0 ruling Wednesday that the school “had taken immense pains to devise a uniform policy which respected Muslim beliefs but did so in an inclusive, unthreatening and uncompetitive way.” “The rules laid down were as far from being mindless as uniform rules could ever be. The school had enjoyed a period of harmony and success to which the uniform policy was thought to contribute,” Bingham said. He noted that the head teacher at the school at the time was a Muslim, and the rules were acceptable to mainstream Muslims. Begum was sent home from school in September 2002 for wearing the jilbab. “We’re not sure if we’re going to take it to the European Court or not,” Begum told Sky News. “I think I have made my point at this stage,” she said, adding that she hoped the case encouraged others to “speak out.” Lord Hoffmann said Begum could have moved to a single-sex school where her religion did not require a jilbab or a school where she was allowed to wear one. “Instead, she and her brother decided that it was the school’s problem. They sought a confrontation and claimed that she had a right to attend the school of her own choosing in the clothes she chose to wear,” Hoffmann wrote. Lord Nicholls, while joining in ruling for the school, said he believed the court may have underestimated the difficulty she would have faced in changing schools.

‘I could scream with happiness. I’ve given hope and strength to Muslim women’; Schoolgirl tells Guardian of her battle to wear Islamic dress

By Dilpazier Aslam A schoolgirl who yesterday won the right to wear the Islamic shoulder-to-toe dress in school said the landmark ruling would “give hope and strength to other Muslim women”. In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Shabina Begum, 16, described the court of appeal verdict against Denbigh high school in Luton as a victory for all Muslims “who wish to preserve their identity and values despite prejudice and bigotry”. After a two-year campaign by Shabina, Lord Justice Brooke found her former school had acted against her right to express her religion by excluding her because she insisted on wearing the jilbab. The ruling, overturning a high court decision which dismissed her application for a judicial review last year, will affect every school in the country. Almost a year after the French government banned “conspicuous” religious symbols, including the hijab, in schools, the judge called on the Department for Education to give British schools more guidance on how to comply with their obligations under the Human Rights Act. “I really feel like screaming out of happiness,” said Shabina, who was represented at the court of appeal by Cherie Booth QC. “I don’t regret wearing the jilbab at all. I’m happy that I did this. I feel that I have given hope and strength to other Muslim women. “I also feel a bit sad when I think why couldn’t this judgment have been made two years ago? In the end it’s my loss. No one else has lost anything.” Shabina had worn the shalwar kameez [trousers and tunic] from when she entered the school at the age of 12 until September 2002, when she decided it was against the tenets of her religion. When Denbigh refused her request to wear the jilbab, she was excluded, becoming the reluctant poster girl of a campaign that has been reported in 137 countries. “I thought it would be acceptable to wear because most people at the school are Muslim,” she said. “Then when I was refused I thought a month maximum. Then it just carried on. I get recognised when I go out and other people point to me. They say, ‘Are you that girl?'” Denbigh high school, which has a 79% Muslim intake, said it had lost on a technicality and the school was proud of its multi-faith policy. It said in a statement that it takes into account the cultural and religious sensitivities of pupils. Girls at the school were permitted to wear skirt, trousers or a shalwar kameez and headscarves, which complied with school uniform requirements. The statement said: “The policy was agreed by the governing body following wide consultation with the DfES, pupils, parents, schools and leading Muslim organisations.” The local education authority, Luton borough council, said all schools would now be advised to take pupils’ religion into account when imposing dress rules. Shabina, who was forced to switch to a school that did not prevent Muslim girls from wearing the jilbab, said her campaign had taken its toll. “I can’t be normal with friends if I do not go to school with them. I feel like my social skills have really been lacking. I do not really have many friends at my new school.” At times, even some of her peers cast doubt on her case. “Some of my friends said to me, ‘It’s not an obligation, why are you going to get yourself excluded because of it?’ I said that it is – look at verse number 3.59,” she said referring to the Qur’anic passage which she believes obliges Muslim women to cover their bodies bar their hands and face. In April last year Shabina’s mother died, a month before she lost her case at the high court. Excluded from school and fighting a daunting legal battle, she said the 12 months leading up to her mother’s death were the worst of her life. Her initial defeat did not come as a complete surprise. “Our solicitors told us we only had a 5% chance of winning the case because it’s a radical judgment. They would prefer the court of appeal to do that. After I heard that I felt like I had nothing else to lose.” In a statement after the judgment, Shabina added: “Today’s decision is a victory for all Muslims who wish to preserve their identity and values despite prejudice and bigotry.” She said the school’s decision has been “a consequence of an atmosphere that has been created in western societies post-9/11, an atmosphere in which Islam has been made a target for vilification in the name of the ‘war on terror’.” She told the Guardian: “I hope in years to come policy-makers will take note of a growing number of young Muslims who, like me, have turned back to our faith after years of being taught that we needed to be liberated from it. “Our belief in our faith is the one thing that makes sense of a world gone mad, a world where Muslim women, from Uzbekistan to Turkey, are feeling the brunt of policies guided by western governments. I feel I’ve made people question the jilbab issue again. “Both France and Britain are calling for freedom and democracy, but something as simple as the jilbab still takes two years to get okayed.”